Reading a person’s letters reveals life and times

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 22, 2008

By Gretchen Beilfuss Witt
Rowan Public Library
Whether fact or fiction, letters make fascinating reading. Letters reveal a host of things about the writer and his or her world, from day-to-day activities to the privations experienced during a war.
We all have a little of the nosy parker in us that wants to read the private thoughts and correspondence of the rich and famous or the lovelorn swain. Letters from the past found forgotten in an attic trunk or reverently cherished over the years bring the experiences of our forebears to light.
In “Bright and Gloomy Days,” Sarah Bahnson Chapman shares with us the communication between her great-great-grandfather and his father in letters written between 1860-1865.
Charles Bahnson, a Moravian from Salem, relates his experiences as an apprentice jeweler in Philadelphia and his concern with the growing unrest of the country. He speaks to his father about family tragedies, his brother’s uncertainty of career, political activities, and his service as quartermaster in the War Between the States. One has just a snapshot of how the war affected this staunchly-loyal Southern family.
In “Baroness von Riedesel and the American Revolution: Journal and Correspondence of a Tour of Duty, 1776-1783,” the baroness recounts the hardships of her family as they join her husband, a Hessian general, during the American Revolution. A unique tale, her letters include much detail, and she writes in a very readable and appealing style. It gives a true feel for life during this tumultuous time.
For a twist on the biography, take a look at Jane Goodall’s “Africa in My Blood,” as we follow her avid interest in animals and language from childhood up to the early years of her marriage. Her letters to family and friends are engaging and delightful.
Or if you prefer literary figures, take a peek at “A Life In Letters,” a glimpse of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life and writing in his own words. This collection of letters to his editor, friends, wife Zelda and daughter Scottie “offers a full, vibrant self-portrait of an artist whose work was his life,” a reviewer wrote.
Fictional letters can be just as interesting as the real ones. Epistolary fiction has been around since the 1500s but became popular in the 1800s. Dostoevsky in “Poor Folk,” Stoker in “Dracula,” and C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters” use this literary form to convey their stories to the reader.
In Jack Cavanaugh’s “Postmarked Heaven” four humans, a doctor from the American Civil War era, a young woman of the Roman Empire, an African mother and an American film producer, write from “beyond the veil.” They encourage their fellows to continue in the faith and persevere through the difficulties of life. Speaking from their own lives and lessons, they invoke thoughtful reflection and call upon the reader to live with faith and trust.
An enchanting and rich foray into language and mortality, Robert Dessaix’s “Night Letters” draws the reader in at the outset with delicious imagery. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, the protagonist writes letters to a friend describing his journeys and thoughts as he explores Italy, physically and intellectually. With humor and optimism, despite dealing with his mortality, this charming book is sure to captivate.
Computer classes: Monday, 7 p.m., Introduction to Searching the World Wide Web; Thursday, 2:30 p.m., Creating Spreadsheets with Excel.
Classes are free and held at the library headquarters on the second floor. Sessions are about 90 minutes long. Class size is limited to 16 on a first-come, first-served basis.
Movies in August ó All are unrated silent films from the 1920s. Some movies appropriate for younger audiences. Children should be accompanied by an adult. Free popcorn and lemonade. Tuesday, “City Lights” with Charlie Chaplin.
Displays: Headquarters ó Dolls by Rowan Doll Society; South ó lunch boxes by Sharon Ross; East ó ceramic and porcelain dolls by Margie Von Cannon.Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.
Web site: For a listing of all library programs at all library locations, www.rowanpubliclibrary. org.