In a Q&A session at the 2011 National Book Festival in Washington D.C., David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, John Adams, 1776, and other master works of biography discussed his research techniques. He generally takes five to ten years to write a book. He walks where his character walked, reads what he read, experiences the character’s home and frequented buildings, and studies diaries and letters. This latter pursuit was particularly fruitful in the case of John and Abigail Adams and their offspring, who wrote frequently and articulately.
There is no substitute, said McCullough, for handling and studying original documents. And in our age, it’s growing more difficult.
“The importance of verbal history, or recorded history, is extremely important now, and more so than ever because nobody writes letters any more and no-body in high office would dare keep a diary any more…. And it’s a huge loss…. Future historians are going to have very, very little to work with,” he said.
If you do have access to an ancestor’s letters, the challenge is to find the nuggets that tell volumes about the individual’s life. My brothers and I hit the jackpot, through extraordinary circumstances.
My older brother lives in Topeka, where we grew up and where our maternal grandfather was managing editor of the evening newspaper. We have a cousin, the proverbial black sheep, who had pilfered family collections of our grandfather’s letters and papers and sold them at pawn shops. A local pawn dealer acquired a particular collection that he thought would be better placed at the public library. The librarian called my brother. “We have your grandfather’s love letters here. We thought you might want them more than we do.”
We discovered that these were not the letters of a young man in love. Rather these were letters from a man who twenty years into a marriage realized what he almost lost. Our grandmother was thrown from a horse on a trail high in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1931, and Grandpa came upon her on the trail in a pool of blood. After a grueling rescue on a moonless night, and a harrowing car trip over Berthoud Pass to the hospital in Denver, she recovered. On her next birthday and on their next anniversary Grandpa wrote her a love letter. And he continued to do so on those two occasions for the rest of his life.
Using the first love letter and my grandfather’s own account of the accident as published in his newspaper column, and adding a few family photos, I preserved this one telling family story in a little book titled A Million Hands, because my grandfather said that when help arrived it was like a million hands were suddenly helping them. It is a family treasure, a gem of an important story, made possible by a newspaper account, but also by love letters through a wayward cousin, a pawn dealer, and the Topeka Public Library. Indeed, David McCullough, what will we do without such as these?