In donating to the College Archives nearly 400 letters that I wrote from Barnard to my parents in Elmira, New York, I first reviewed them closely. The prospect of future scholars relying on your adolescent and post-adolescent letters home as documentary evidence of anything is a sobering thought. It’s even more chastening for a professional documentary editor like myself, someone who pretends to know something about making such materials accessible as part of an editorial process. What is chilling is the realization that letter writers lie. Perhaps each of us, in her personal letters, functions as her own first editor.
Let me first examine what is real and honest about the letters.
A tendency to over-annotate for my audience. On reporting a Marcel Marceau, performance, I went to some pains to explain how this man could keep his audience enthralled for two hours with “no scenery, only a stool or a box for props—he made the stage what he wanted.” My parents had grown up with the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton and knew about pantomime far better than I did.
Fantasies about food. Pre-vacation letters contained menus for welcome-home feasts: “STEAK (I’m becoming an involuntary vegetarian) ... Pork and sauerkraut and dumplings, Barbecued hamburgers, Roast beef, Pecan pie, Eggs and sausage, Popcorn—with plenty of butter and salt, ... Milk—cold, hairless and waxless—Good, warm, rolls softer than rock.” Food shipments from Elmira were a constant theme.
Reports of performances I’d seen. When we’re young and poor we take greater advantage of New York’s opportunities than we ever will again. My first professional ballet was Sadler’s Wells; the first O’Neill play, Long Day’s Journey into Night with Fredric March, Florence Eldredge, and Jason Robards, Jr.
What it was like to study at Barnard then. Chilton Williamson, later my adviser and lifelong friend, warned we’d be doing eight hours of reading a week for his course. I obediently headed to Butler Library to get two books on his list—and discovered they were charged out to Williamson. I didn’t exaggerate when I wrote my sophomore year.
“I’ve never read so much in my life.” We worked hard, so hard, and I hope my parents understood when I penned: “Congratulations—you have just become a study break.”
The role of the opposite sex. In high school, I simply didn’t date. I realized I wouldn’t get out of Elmira by being anyone’s steady girlfriend. If my parents were embarassed by the earlier absence of boyfriends, they could now keep track of a changing cast of characters in my social life. Like any girl in New York, I noted my increasing sophistication. Fixed up with a freshman my sophomore year, I commented grandly: “He’s nice, good-looking, but young. (I felt like a maiden aunt chaperoning him and his freshman companions.)” My birthday wish list reflected the same world-weariness. The sophomore catalogue included “good white gloves.”
The letters’ numbers betrayed my need to assure my parents that I hadn’t changed or lost touch with people I’d left behind. At first, I wrote daily. While they assured me this was unnecessary, I knew better: “In every letter you say that you don’t expect a letter a day from me. However, in every other letter I find a book of stamps enclosed.”
Mostly, I lied like a trooper. Hard to imagine, isn’t it, a teenage girl being less than honest with her parents? I never hinted at my discovery of cigarettes. While I reported my roommates’ occasional over indulgence in hard liquor, I never admitted to more than two beers in the West End Bar. In reviewing my old missives, I feared they were so well-censored they’d never interest anyone until I found one written to my father in March 1959. It’s predictably sophomoric but heartfelt:
“Now I realize that however much I dislike the food here, however tired and dirty I am, I was right in coming ... In the 50 odd years after I leave college, I must rely on all the thoughts and theories that have been thrown at me here. If I end up teaching history at some high school in Batavia, N.Y., or reasoning with Mau Maus in Tanzanyika [sic], I’ll still be able to go back to the philosophies of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Niccolò Machiavelli.... I won’t need bridge games or TV. I’ll have myself.”
A half century later, I still have the self Barnard helped me find. To underscore this, my letters in the Archives include a note reminding future researchers that teenage girls lie to their parents, and suggesting areas in which I, at least, was surprised to find myself telling the truth. I am not alone among dishonest letter writers, so I donate the letters with only this explanation—there’s no need for apologies.
-Mary-Jo Kline '61, illustrations by Katherine Streeter