The following is Assignment #2 of my work in my inspiring writing seminar, FREN/CPLT 359. It pushed me out of my comfort zone, and allowed me to connect with literature in a way that I had rarely connected before. Enjoy!
“Every day […] makes me long for the time that I will hope is to come, when […] we may live quietly at home, no more wars to disturb us in our endeavors to make all good and happy.”Augusta Forrer Bruen
Housed deep in the archives of the Wellesley College Special Collections is a series of handwritten letters. Composed by friends and loved ones of the Bruen and Forrer families of Dayton, Ohio, they are part of The Catharine Mitchill ‘31 Collection of Family Letters, some of which are also available in the special collections digital archive. At first glance, these letters seem quite ordinary, each regaling readers with tales of children’s playdates, the weather, and the ever-present shadow of “the war”—that is, the American Civil War. In fact, these letters are a testament to the complexities of the lives of homemakers during the Civil War, through the specific lens of Augusta Forrer Bruen.
While the collection includes letters to and from a number of family members and friends, one correspondence is of particular interest to me: the letters sent by Augusta Forrer Bruen to her husband, Luther Barnett Bruen, who was fighting in the civil war. Passion and propriety can both be felt in Augusta’s careful penmanship. Between the first “Dearest Luther,” and the last “Goodbye, darling,” she provides a plethora of detail that gives unique insight into the domestic life of a nineteenth century white woman against the backdrop of a war for black liberation.
“Our last news is so threatening that I fear your time has come; I cannot but hope not; but if the worst comes will try to be patient and hopeful still; believe me dearest, I will do my best to keep up my spirits and take care of the little ones left to my charge.”Augusta Forrer Bruen, 16 June 1863
Fear is one of the more poignant threads that run through Augusta’s writings to her husband. Layered among uneventful stories of children’s playdates and visits from friends are increasingly
despairing comments regarding Luther’s safety. It is as though Augusta is playing a tug-of-war with her opposing emotions. She is trying to remain hopeful for her children who often ask eagerly upon waking up, “Is Papa home?” while also being honest with herself and her husband: “…I’m trying to prepare myself for disappointment” (11 July 1861). These are no peacetime musings.
On the surface, the mundane updates that recur in Augusta’s letters to her husband do not appear to be anything special. Yet domestic concerns are more than they seem when juxtaposed with the uncertainty and instability begotten by war. These concerns are quite different, of course, from those of the black men and women for whom the war was being fought.
“I forgot to tell you I believe, about Joe Crane’s change of politics. He has become a great abolitionist.”Augusta Forrer Bruen, 21 June 1863
Though I have not come across a letter in which Augusta explicitly discusses her own racial background and positionality, her superficial references to “the ‘darkey’” (31 July 1861) and “the slavery question” (12 March 1864) make it clear that she is not part of the black struggle. Despite the fact that her husband is at war, risking his life for this cause, Augusta’s quiet, distant life as a housewife in Dayton, Ohio spawned an unyielding ignorance to such issues.
In a time when becoming an abolitionist is no more than a “change of politics” to people like Augusta and her friends, who “watch the War with a sad interest” (30 November 1862), it strikes a modern reader as extraordinary that there were persons fighting and dying for this cause. These attitudes demonstrate just how distinct the divide was between the politics of slavery and its inhumanity. They suggest, too, how difficult it is for someone who is not on the battlefield to comprehend its horrors, and how far removed the idea of war is from the everyday American consciousness. In today’s society, ‘war’ is a spectacle watched—perhaps with Augusta’s “sad interest”—on screens that show bombs falling in faraway lands. In the mind of a western civilian, the experiences of Luther Bruen seem utterly foreign, and therefore all the more valuable.
The discussion of race and abolition in the letters is particularly fascinating today, likely because of the fact that race is still a live issue in mainstream discourse. Reading private exchanges regarding race during Civil War-era America provides remarkable insight and offers a more candid account of the historical events of the civil war than the narratives with which the public has become familiar. I wonder which of the billions of humdrum messages that we exchange each day will be preserved in the archives of the future, and how we will be understood by generations to come.
As the delicate letters are tucked away for safekeeping, I find myself eager for Augusta’s next correspondence, feeling acutely connected to the snippets of her daily life that I have explored thus far. After a final farewell from the curator, I reassess and decide that my original evaluation of the letters was accurate: they are indeed ordinary. However, ‘ordinary’ implies no lack of value or merit—they are ordinary, but extraordinarily so.
Collections such as The Catharine Mitchill ‘31 Collection of Family Letters may be consulted in the Special Collections reading room of Clapp Library. Readers are required to register and present photo identification. The catalog is online. The collections are available for research, free of charge to students and faculty of the Wellesley College community. (Source: Wellesley College Special Collections webpage)