Using letters in writing a family history

Private correspondence

A few old letters are often to be found treasured by some member of the family, constituting all that can be described as family papers. Recently several family history journals have been publishing correspondence from early emigrants to their relations at home, containing fascinating details of the primitive conditions with which they were having to cope. Unfortunately, letters of a more routine nature tend to follow the easy path down to the waste-paper basket. Sometimes, however, an ancestor may have had occasion to correspond with some person who was, or later became, of sufficient distinction to have his papers preserved; and so family letters and autographs may now be hobnobbing with those of the great in some record repository. Among the vast number of Additional MS in the British Library MSS Library, at the British Museum, I found several letters written by Valentine Fitzhugh at Constantinople to James Porter, formerly British Ambassador there and later knighted. These supplied not only valuable additions to my knowledge of Valentine’s career, but also gave me an insight into his character. In one of them he wrote:

Dear Sir, ...The 20th past (October 1762), two-thirds of Pera (the Christian residential suburb of Constantinople) was unfortunately burnt down, my house and furniture amongst the rest. My clerk had only time to save the counting house. I shall be a loser by this accident at least D.5000,- -. For my part I always endeavour to avoid misfortunes, but when they happen they affect me very little, `The Almighty giveth, he taketh away, Blessed be his name for ever’. It began at St. Antonio’s (convent) and burnt to the butchery, in all about 60 houses, and very little furniture saved.... This affair has so much disgusted both Mrs. Fitzhugh and myself that we have taken the resolution to leave this country, for we see nothing but misery and destruction before us, for which purpose we have fixed upon Neufchatel, where there is good society, great liberty, and very cheap living, three points very essential. England would be very disagreeable to Mrs. Fitzhugh as she does not talk the language. Besides, my fortune is not sufficient to live as I should choose. There I can live very genteelly, and I hope very happily.

The somewhat priggish claim that his mind was impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune followed only a few lines later by its complete contradiction is rather endearing. The full correspondence showed me that, but for a change of destination on Valentine’s part, I might well now be a Swiss national.

I have recently been told of the existence of some more letters from a member of my family to a historical celebrity, in this case from my great-great-aunt Emily to Lady Byron, the poet’s wife. When, on hearing this, I said that I must arrange to see them, my informant said, “Oh, there is nothing in them of any interest whatever.” Never pay the slightest attention to such a comment. No one but you, the family historian, can tell what evidence you will find useful. It may well be that most important items in those letters are Emily’s address and the dates, revealing where she was at certain times. In this particular case, I do expect to get more than that, because at present I know of no reason at all why Emily should be writing to Lady Byron; so, even if her letters are deadly dull, they are bound to reveal a subject of correspondence hitherto unsuspected; and what may be merely implied in them may lead me on to some activity of Emily’s that I should know about.

Information about collections of correspondence in private hands can be obtained, in many reference libraries, from the volumes of Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and also by consulting the National Register of Archives, but for collections cataloged by the latter you will need to have some previous idea as to what you are looking for. The Commission and National Register are both at Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/25 at 09:28 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Letter from Sherwood Anderson to John Anderson

[Spring, 1926]

Dear [John]:

It’s a problem all right. The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing quite gives the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply--"Look at me.” They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found.

Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,



Sherwood Anderson wrote novels, short stories, articles, plays, and poems, often trying to reveal the lives of ordinary people. In 1926, he was forty-nine years old. Thom, his second child, is seventeen.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/25 at 05:07 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Letter from John Steinbeck to Thom Steinbeck

[New York]
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First--if you are in love--that’s a good thing--that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second--There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you--of kindness and consideration and respect--not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply--of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it--and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone--there is no possible harm in saying so--only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another--but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens--The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.




John Steinbeck was the most popular novelist in the world when he died in 1968. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his life’s body of writing. Thom is the oldest of his two sons. He is fourteen and is living at a boarding school in Connecticut. The boys’ mother was Gwyn Conger, Steinbeck’s first wife. Elaine is his third wife.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/23 at 09:20 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project
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