J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Editing the “Compulsively Circumspect” Thomas Hutchinson

This year the Colonial Society of Massachusetts published the first volume of its Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson series, a project decades in the making. That makes a valuable and widely discussed source available at last.

This month the series’s chief editor, John W. Tyler, contributed two essays about that work to the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Vita Brevis blog, and one can sense his pleasure and pride that it’s finally seeing print.

In the second posting, Tyler discusses the challenges and pleasures Thomas Hutchinson left us:
Many eighteenth-century authors wrote a first draft in their letter books, allowing a scribe (or in Hutchinson’s case, his children) to make a fair copy that would be dispatched to the recipient. One of the very first phases of any letters project is to gather all the existing copies of a letter for comparison, and for someone as compulsively circumspect as Hutchinson, the differences between the various copies are often enlightening. In almost all cases, the recipient’s copy provides the printed text, since those were the words that were read and acted upon. We usually note differences among the copies in the notes, although in some cases we have actually printed two versions of the same letter, since his unguarded first thoughts make much juicier reading.

Annotation…is the part I most enjoy. It is exactly like working on a jigsaw puzzle. The first reference to a person or event may not be exactly clear, and many times, if the editor is patient, the mystery will resolve itself a few letters down the line. Thus, “old Warren” – who may be any resident named Warren living in Hampshire County, Massachusetts – will eventually be revealed as Seth Warren, one of the so-called Berkshire Rioters, who attempted the rescue of a friend imprisoned for debt during the period when all the courts were closed because of the Stamp Act.

A good memory also helps to identify unnamed correspondents (of whom there are many in the Hutchinson Correspondence) when something said in one letter matches with something said in another. In certain instances, Hutchinson may deliberately leave a name blank or refer to an individual only by his initials, as a safeguard against charges of libel or protection against prying eyes at a time when letters were frequently opened by curious individuals while still on their way to the addressee. Here it helps to know the cast of characters or the way he habitually refers to them, as in “my chief adversary” or “the principal demagogue in the province” by which he almost always means James Otis, Jr.
Hutchinson was himself a historian who collected and studied the documents of previous generations. I’m sure he’d be pleased that, if we in Massachusetts must continue to paw through his private letters, it’s being done with this level of accuracy and care.

1 comment:

Stephen Foster said...

I'm as pleased as everyone else to see Hutchinson's correspondence appearing in print at last and in fact bought the book for the Newberry Library, where I hang out most of the time. But its appearance and the promise of suceeding volumes raises an interesting question: what are you going to do about the autobiography? (I mean the document in the BL, a transcript of which is in the MHS under the odd heading "Hutchinson in America.) There is no printed edition. There may be an on-line edition that I am unaware of, but I am morally certain there is no scholarly version available. It deserves one.