Ruth Moore and the art of the letter

October 10th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

Dear Readers,
I’ve been struggling to find the time to write a blog post for a month, and then once I found a subject, I couldn’t get my words to flow in a neat and orderly fashion. Each sentence I typed felt like a false start, a diversion from what I really wanted to say. I started paragraph after paragraph and then deleted each one in turn. It’s so easy now to erase your thoughts, to soft-pedal and not make what you say count. So here I am today, back at the keyboard, faced with a challenge that Ruth Moore posed to her friend Mary in a letter from 1948, “Well, maybe this one will get a peep out of [her].”

When I went looking for correspondence to highlight in a blog post, I settled on Ruth Moore because it is LGBTQ history month, and I wanted to expose some of our queer content.

In the letter above, Ruth Moore writes to her old friend Mary, a sorority sister from college, to catch up after over a decade. In that time, Moore met writer Eleanor Mayo; they moved to California together and then back to Maine, where they bought 18 acres of land and built a house. Here Moore describes Eleanor Mayo as her “friend,” but they lived together as companions until Mayo’s death in 1980.

Most of the materials we hold as part of the Ruth Moore papers are manuscripts for books, but there are a few folders of correspondence that offer a good view into Moore’s life and relationships. The first few letters I read made me laugh out loud–Moore’s sharp wit and clarity endeared her to me. If you want to read a great collection of her letters, check out Sanford Phippen’s High Clouds Soaring Storms Driving Low: the Letters of Ruth Moore.

The book contains a good selection of Moore’s letters, but the correspondence we hold is not included, so you’ll have to come here to read more gems like this one:

Mary Kamenoff’s responses are quite hilarious in their own right. The two carried on a lengthy correspondence (1948-1989) that covered subjects from literature to family life; one series of letters worth reading is a critique of Mary Ellen Chase’s review of Ruth Moore in the Saturday Evening Post.

One of my favorite openings to one of Mary’s letters mirrors my own state lately: “You will please understand that a failure to express my scintillating thoughts with freshness and vigor is due solely to the inhibitions impressed on me by the machine age.” (July 7, 1962)

An Early Mystery in Maine

August 12th, 2014 by Ann Morrissey

Would you like to write an historical novel, — or perhaps a mystery story based in Maine?  Well I have the basic material for you.  It is the Harriet A. McNeill collection at the MWWC here on the Portland campus.  It is a collection of seven letters from Mrs. McNeill during the years of 1852-1853, most to her niece Caroline.  Mrs. McNeill is from Alabama and is writing to Caroline in Lewiston, Maine.

For some unspecified reason, Mrs. McNeill thinks that Caroline should leave Maine as soon as possible.  She tells her niece to tell no one where she is going and to slip out of town and make her way to Alabama where she would room with her husband’s niece, and be Mrs. McNeill’s heir.  She would also have to do a little housework but nothing too onerous Mrs. McNeill assures her.

The sticking point comes with the $100 for travel money that McNeill keeps promising to send to Caroline.  It is dependent on the agent’s (Mr Libby) ability to sell Mrs McNeill’s northern property and to take $100 of the profit and send it to Caroline.  Meanwhile in the midst of McNeill’s letters that keep promising that the agent will send the money, she showers Caroline with requests for things that she should order and have sent to Alabama or things that she could carry with her.  The items include furniture, 100 yds of carpet, dinning room chairs, cruel canvases and a guitar.  But these requests (and the letters) stop when Caroline sends the banns of her marriage to Mr Libby, the agent.

Our letters pick up again in 1855 when Mrs McNeill writes to Mr Libby asking him to send her the proceeds from the sale of her northern property, and then she will send him the deed.  Apparently Mr Libby wants the deed first, and then he says that he will send the money from the sale.  And so the rangling continues.

But what a good writer could do would be to surround the basic letters with answers as to why Caroline should sneak out of Lewiston?, how Caroline ever met Mr. Libby?, and how Mr. Elliot of Lewiston suspected that her Aunt’s promise of the never arriving $100 was an “uncertain matter.?”  There is much here for a Maine mystery writer to flush out.

Sorting out traces of our history

February 21st, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

For a number of years now, I’ve been meaning to get to fully processing our administrative files, which document the past 50+ years of collecting at the Maine Women Writers Collection.  In some ways, though, it is good that I have waited.  Now I understand how I use the collection, what kinds of documents we need to find easily, and how best it might serve us to organize it.  It’s a bit daunting, but the time has come.


For several days this week, I have taken advantage of the slow, snowy energy and put our focus on these papers.  Laura and I have been pulling out all the boxes, looking through all of the folders, and stacking everything in rough series to be more thoroughly organized later.  I have enjoyed the opportunity to look through the incredible correspondence that Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy carried on with numerous authors, donors, and other friends of the Collection.  I have been confused and dismayed by some of the odd things we’ve saved–the question “Why?” often hanging in the air between Laura and I throughout the process.  But the real “Why?” is the reason we are doing this at all–so that we can find the gems amidst the invoices and randomness; so that we can trace provenance and answer questions of how we acquired each collection.


It is an interesting process to look through the eyes of people who were not trained to think in terms of subject headings and organizational schema.  Grace and Dorothy built an amazing collection with little experience to guide them.  They were pioneers–warm, generous women who believed in the power of women’s words and women’s ordinary realities.  As I read through the letters that fill many a box, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for these two thoughtful, determined women.

The tenderness and friendship that existed between the former curators and their correspondents always reminds me to write more thoughtful emails, to devote more attention to the ways that I portray our work in words, and subsequently causes me to lament the fact that volume has replaced quality in our communications.

I pulled this letter from one folder and the first line grabbed me right away.  “The trouble is, before starting a letter to you everything has to be just right, sun shining, outlook relaxed and still with it,” Florence Burrill Jacobs writes to Dorothy Healy in 1973.  She continues, “And that happy conjunction doesn’t often come about!”  Imagine if we waited for a sunny day to write an email to a friend!  (Well, this winter, we’d never write at all — let’s be honest here!)  Later in the letter, the conversational tone pulled me in further, making me just love Mrs. Jacobs’ style of corresponding. “And the stars!  Have you been where you could see the evening sky since September?  Hour after hour we have stood out back where no street lights intrude, and just gazed up.  Jupiter, Venus, M[a]rs, myriads of smaller ones, more brilliant than I ever saw them.  I am sometimes awakened in the night by a blazing west.”

I am looking forward to getting to a place in the processing when I can start to relabel folders with titles that will point to the contents clearly so that I can put my hands on these letters more easily.  The amount of information about acquisition procedures that resides in the correspondence alone is quite astounding.  That the letters are an incredible pleasure to read is just a bonus.  If you want to start up a correspondence with me, write to me about how the stars look when you go to bed at night, and I will write back to let you know that the stars here are sometimes dimmed by streetlights, but that your poems light up my world.  Yes, this is what keeps me in the archival profession, these beautiful private moments between people.

George Borup’s correspondence with Marie Peary: friendship, love and tragedy

October 7th, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

Every now and then, I get the opportunity to dig in to an already processed collection in a way that allows me to understand the people and issues represented in a robust way.  A researcher calls up a collection or writes with a question, and I am often compelled to explore further than the original query demands. Every time I do this, I get a richer sense of the collection at hand, and I am much more prepared to help the next person who asks about connections in the materials.

Such was the case when an out-of-state researcher wrote to ask for copies of the correspondence from George Borup to Marie Peary. While I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Marie Peary’s diaries and souvenirs from her travels, I had not explored much of her correspondence.  I knew Borup’s name, but did not know much about him. At first, the letters were simply friendly cheerful notes that contained some teasing and references to her family.


In addition to letters, there are some postcards documenting Borup’s travel across the United States for the American Geographical Society.

Some of the letters were short missives that inquire about Marie’s day or relay information to coordinate visits, and others were accounts of his adventures out in the “wilds” of America.


While I stood at the photocopier, skimming letters as I went, I began to see a developing love story. Borup was deeply infatuated with Marie, yet I know that he was not the man she ended up marrying.

In all the folders of letters, this is the only correspondence from Marie to George.

In several letters, Borup referred to the expedition he was about to embark upon, telling her that if she falls in love with another guy during his time away, he will find some way to go on without her.



Borup’s letters became more and more intense, as in this one, where he tells Marie that he could not imagine life if she did not love him, that she brought life back to him lost when his mother died. He offers his heart-wrenching story with such earnestness that I worry Borup might die of a broken heart.


At this point, I decided to do some research about Borup, and what I found was a tragic ending.
Borup’s star was burning bright and he was set to do what so few men of his time had the opportunity to do when he drowned while canoeing with his friend. While taking in Borup’s unfortunate death, I found myself a little relieved for him because his letters documented Marie’s cooling attention and his increasing bewilderment at her distance. I became curious about Marie’s position, whether her diary recorded her feelings about Borup or reflected upon his death.

I was pleased to see a diary from 1912, pages full of Marie’s neat script. I skimmed through and found a few references to spending time with George, but they pale in comparison to George’s cloying letters to Marie. As the winter was coming to an end, Marie wrote that George’s constant attention was annoying, and she mentioned many other men who caught her eye. She seems like a teenager (which she was at this point) with her many infatuations, none of them becoming serious. At one point she caught herself, reflecting that a girl who is “good as engaged” should not be looking around so much, but this observation does little to stop her roving eye.

In the weeks leading up to George’s death, she barely mentioned him in her diary. Her entry on April 29 began as any other entry did, with a description of her day, then she recounted learning of Borup’s death. Her dismay was clear.

On April 30, Marie ordered flowers and talked about her father going to the funeral, but she decided not to attend Borup’s funeral, writing that she wanted to remember him as he was in life. I looked through other dates of the diary to see if she reflected on the funeral, her decision to remain home, or anything else about Borup, but it appears that she says little. She seemed to move on quickly to shopping and traveling with her family.

With my curiosity satisfied, I resumed reading about Borup, glad to have learned more about this interesting man, who helped to flesh out my understanding of the Peary family’s story.

Carolyn Chute, the working class revolution, and the historical record

August 13th, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

This summer, as has become my custom, I chose a collection that I have been wanting to process and began, once again, to get back to my roots as a processing archivist.  After all, working with collections is the love that got me into this work in the first place, and while it is exciting to plan events, meet authors, acquire papers, and do a host of other administrative work for the Maine Women Writers Collection, I always find myself longing for the hours of unfolding, sorting, and making sense of materials that come to us.  To many of you, this might sound like the definition of boredom, but for an introvert like me, this quiet thinking time is pure joy.  Delving into someone else’s world through their letters, ephemera, and other materials that define their lives and work engages the same part of my brain that enjoys a good work of fiction.  While I might get wrapped up in the papers for a while, later I step back and start to think of the collection from the point of view of a researcher–how to best describe what is there, whether it needs better organization for access, etc.  So I get to divide my time between right and left brain, observation and analysis, concrete and abstract.  It is this balance that gives me pleasure.

Earlier this summer, I was doing a survey of unprocessed collections to prioritize our processing for the year, and I became rather captivated by a group of correspondence from Carolyn Chute that Peter Kellman donated to the MWWC a few years back.  It seemed like a good summer project–not too big, not too complicated; something I could process and describe in a short time.  I looked at the collection when it came in and we did a quick survey of it when we accessioned it, so it was really a matter of taking letters out of envelopes, unfolding paper, sorting, and describing the contents.  I had no idea how engaged I would become with the content of the collection.

As I unfolded and surveyed the letters and missives from Carolyn Chute and the 2nd Maine Militia, I was increasingly impressed by how ahead of her time Carolyn Chute was/is.  In letters from the mid-1990s, Chute was writing about corporate personhood, how citizens need to take power back from corporations, how we need to support the local economy and the working people of the state of Maine.  Here you will see some of my own politics, which is inevitable, but it simply struck me how it took so many people so long to catch up to this point of view.  I found myself nodding in agreement a lot more than I expected.  This is the part of the work that is the most fun–when you’re engaged and surprised and really with the creator of the stuff you’re processing.

Growing up working class in rural Pennsylvania, I have some experience of the right-wing groups that Chute references in her invitation to the Border Mountain Militia (p. 1, above).  I grew up with guns and learned how to shoot them when I was a young girl, and along with that was the constancy of religion.  It was always inseparable.  So, for me, these papers offer a really interesting perspective.  Chute’s militia is of the “No-Wing” variety, and the values that she espouses in her writing reflect that unique view.  Reading deeper in, what I find challenging and important in these materials is the way that people like me, who have left rural America and are now doing middle class work, are critiqued in Chute’s narratives along with all of the lefties, righties and others.  Chute’s work challenges our culture’s held assumptions about meaningful work, class, and who and what matters, and it makes us uncomfortable.  While I find myself conflicted as I read, I also have a great deal of respect for the voice that Chute offers.  Her work is serious, gritty, smart, and challenging; but also tender and funny and full of such heart.  I find it hard not to fall under her spell.

I look forward to making these papers accessible to researchers in the coming months, and to getting to know Chute’s work more intimately in the process.