Identifying the Unidentified, Part I

Former AAS intern Lucia Ferguson (Smith College) worked with a manuscript collection of unidentified diaries.  Her charge?  Identify the diarist.  Lucia was very successful with one particular volume, which she discovered belonged to a young man named Henry Martin.  Although no last name was listed anywhere in the volume, a poem from the diarist’s sweetheart was inscribed to a Henry.  After identifying cities and towns, as well as matching other family names listed in the diary to census records, she was able to name Henry as the author.  After that, everything fell into place.

Over the next four weeks we’ll be featuring installments from Lucia’s journey into the life of Henry Martin through his previously unidentified diary.

In the AAS collection, there are plenty of unidentified manuscripts. Inquiry into their origins is frustrating and fascinating. I was eventually able to learn that one, a yearlong diary, was written by a 24 year old man from Southern New Hampshire. The diary contains the quiet daily life of a young Civil War veteran named Henry Martin. Born on July 23, 1843, he was the eldest of the five children of Samuel Martin and Lovilla (Brown) Martin.

It is not a particularly remarkable document—entries are scanty, rarely more than a few phrases long. It is monotonous and repetitive. I have grappled with how to articulate the importance of something like this, and other writers have addressed it much better than I ever possibly could. Writing about the importance of something ordinary and seemingly inconsequential is a struggle. Similarly, I tried and failed to make sense of this document and its relevance, until I stumbled upon my favorite entry. Following a dull week where the entries consisted of “as usual”s and “at work today”s, Henry finally just wrote this bitterly wonderful line on Tuesday, July 9th:

As usual only more so

This brief phrase, somehow, gave me a foothold into the document as a whole. So lackluster and so perfectly descriptive of ordinariness.

I undertook to figure out what I could about the diary’s author. It is very powerful to feel you have “captured” someone in this way—to uncover an identity, to shine a bright light on a few shadowy lines on a page. Our young diarist, Henry Martin, has little eye for detail, and no desire to really write something, or create a vision of his own life—his journal is merely a record of events. Went to Lyndboro. Started for Wilton. Went to church. We onlookers have no way in, as he reveals little of his interior life.

And yet I still find his story fascinating, and can’t let go of that obscene drive to make something of it, draw a higher conclusion, give it meaning. The only way to not go crazy, however, is to avoid that—take the document on its own terms, admire its ordinariness, sit down and say, Here is a life. Or a year in a life.

Check back next week to learn more about Henry’s everyday life as recorded in his diary.

2 thoughts on “Identifying the Unidentified, Part I

  1. Pingback: Indentifying the Unidentified, Part II « Past is Present

  2. Pingback: Identifying the Unidentified, Part IV « Past is Present

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