In 1935 Blanche Butler Ames published letters between her and her late husband, Adelbert Ames, in a collection called Chronicles from the Nineteenth Century. Ames was a skilled historian and genealogist, as well as talented sculptor and gardener. On top of all that, she was the daughter of renowned stage actress Sarah Hildreth Butler and Civil War general Benjamin Butler, and her husband was also a general in the war and the governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction.
Take a moment to read Ames’ introduction to this book, where in less than two pages she raises several important considerations about the work of personal history: Why save your family history, and how does it help the public at large? Where do you draw the line between preserving your family’s history and protecting their privacy? And when is there value in publishing your personal history versus keeping it in the family? The answer is different for every family.
It’s also worth mentioning that women like Ames are the reason why much of our history (family and otherwise) is preserved today. How many collections of letters and other documents would be lost to history if women didn’t hold on to them? I’ve seen many manuscript collections that only exist today because a woman held on to them and protected them until the rest of the family realized their value and donated them to an archives. Historians seem to anecdotally agree too.
I should also mention that I absolutely love the thought of Blanche Ames sitting, alone, quiet, and reflective in her study taking the time to ponder the implications and ethics of family history while carefully handling and organizing her family correspondence. If you’re like me and have an old box of family letters sitting in storage somewhere, I hope this inspires you find a quiet time to sit with them and arrange them too.
Children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are away, intent upon various duties and amusements.
My self-imposed tasks are all finished and I must try to pass the hours away. For want of something better I will try to commune with myself and fix the thoughts on paper. How they keep changing in regard to the publication of the family letters I have saved through so many years! With patience they have been taken from the old envelopes and chronologically arranged. My primary object was to leave descendants a record of their forebearers of which they may justly feel proud. But as I read over these chronicles of a past century they seem illustrative of conditions that do not exist at present and can never return. Telegraph and telephone now take the place of letters, except occasionally, and daily life is not depicted in writing.
In my mind the question arises again and again to be renewed for various reasons. Would it be well to publish these chronicles? Would the examples of fine lives and lessons taught benefit anyone? Are the historical records of any value? The answering thought is “Yes.”
What are the objections? The exposure to public curiosity, gossip, and criticism of the sentiments and daily life of the dead, who if living would not allow prying eyes and thoughts in their affairs. Because they cannot act for themselves am I justified in acting for them? I do not know.
It is difficult to separate, in thought, the dear ones who lived half a century ago from the unknown restless peoples of the present day. However, humanity remains the same and impelled by the same desires and ambitions, and those who long since ceased to care for the joys and troubles of this world cannot be disturbed by what takes place here. Any imagined objections of those departed to certain lines of action here might be considered as negative. Death the great nullifier will in due time settle these doubts as far as I am concerned.
But there is another constantly recurring thought. How far am I actuated in the proposed publication by a desire for public self-expression? I have been the mother of six children who will live and cherish my memory, I have no doubt. Scrub woman Mary Flynn can claim as fine a record.
Am I actuated by a silly desire to have a posthumous distinctive entity and capture an ephemeral renown as the writer of some letters which in themselves have no especial merit? I must be frank with myself and acknowledge that, while refusing to consider that I stand at the gateway of death, I am inclined to enjoy, in thought, a hope of becoming a personality together with my father, mother, and husband.
Blanche Butler Ames, 1935
Do you or a relative have a collection of family documents you’re preserving? Have you ever thought about publishing any of them? Leave a comment and tell us about them!