Leafing through the Past

In the village of Groton, Suffolk is a black mulberry tree, thought to be the oldest of its kind in England. It was planted in 1550 by Adam Winthrop, whose grandson, John led the first settlers to North America in 1630. Winthrop founded the city of Boston and subsequently became the first Governor of Massachusetts.

In 2017 I was doing research for a family memoir and spent several days with the archivists of two Massachusetts schools where my father had been a teacher in the 1950s. The archival records at Groton School are stored in windowless, fire-proof, temperature-controlled rooms and access to documents is carefully supervised. I was fortunate that Douglas Brown, the school archivist, had been a pupil of my father’s in 1953. Doug has spent 56 years of his life at Groton – as pupil, teacher and custodian of the school’s long history. He handed me a manila folder with Peter O’Connell’s name written in ink in the top right-hand corner. Inside I found a hand-written job application which, rather surprisingly, admitted to having no particular skills in English other than a love of the subject and a promise to teach it with interest and enthusiasm. There were personal letters too, written to Jack Crocker, the Headmaster, long after Peter had returned to England.

In 1960 when Groton celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday, a book was published using the school’s rich repository of archived material. In its centennial year, a collection of photographs was produced, edited by Douglas Brown and taken from the many thousands in the Groton archives. In 2018 Doug mentioned that the trustees had commissioned a further history of Groton. He admitted that he didn’t have a lot of new material because, well, people don’t communicate in the same way. It is no longer possible to piece together a story using old letters, scribbled memos and blurred photographs. I thought of Isa Schaff, the archivist at Noble and Greenough School where Peter taught after he left Groton. Isa admitted to me that she ignored instructions to store archival material digitally and continued to print out significant emails which she kept in physical files.

According to an article in The Guardian this week, even the use of email is now in decline, especially amongst Generation Z (those born after 1997). Many young people consider email communication to be outdated, preferring the immediacy of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Doug and I are still in touch. Sometimes I mail him old letters and photographs I have uncovered from Peter’s days at Groton. Once I sent back a library book that my father had checked out in 1954 and never returned. Following a visit to Groton, Suffolk, I sent him a mulberry leaf from the Winthrop tree. I met Doug just 5 years ago and yet I know his address without looking it up and recognise his writing when he sends me a letter in the mail. I have friends of 20 years whose handwriting I have never seen because we communicate solely via email and social media. I have friends from 40 years ago whose handwriting I know immediately, even if they haven’t written to me in decades.

It took me almost two years to sift through my father’s personal papers. He kept everything, from his dry cleaning bills when he was a student at Cambridge to 50 years of letters and diaries. He also kept carbon copies so I have inherited not only the letters he received but also the ones he wrote. Some I almost threw away, frustrated by my repeated inability to move them from the orphaned pile. One, written in 1956, was particularly difficult to decipher as the handwriting and signature were almost illegible. It turned out to be a letter from Thornton Wilder to Peter, describing the influence of Goethe and Dante on his Pulitzer-prize winning play Our Town. Wilder’s nephew, a former pupil of my father’s, has asked whether I would leave the letter, in my will, to the Thornton Wilder Collection at Yale. In the words of Goethe himself: We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverably for ourselves and for others*.

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Die Wahlverwandtschaften/Elective Affinities, 1809

Related blog: A Bell’s not a Bell ‘til you Ring it. A Song’s not a Song ‘til you Sing it.  February 22nd, 2022