It was breathtaking when I handled these fragile letters for the first time. I couldn’t believe that what was in my hands was nearly 120 years old, not to mention a significant part of Boston’s history. This was one of the many letters Robert Woods wrote to his professor, William Jewett Tucker, during his travels to England. The two would start a social settlement together in 1893. They would see men, women, and children in poverty come together in their community; their mission was to carry the spirit of the Social Gospel into Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.
It’s funny to think I’m writing my entire thesis on this preserved correspondence (and the ideas and institutions surrounding it), when it would only amount to a couple of emails today. Somehow the physical manifestation of their conversation– the yellowed paper, the nearly illegible cursive, the flaking edges– makes it seem more significant. And it helps that the library staff watched me like a hawk to make sure I didn’t take any “souvenirs” home with me.
I suppose I’ll look back nostalgically on the many hours in the archives in summer and fall 2013, months that now feel so long ago. A thesis is quite a hubristic task to take on, if you think about it. Trying to turn decades of ideas, developments, and relationships into 100 pages of writing is not unlike swallowing an elephant. But surely this is more about my journey than theirs… I can’t presume to capture the complexities of their experience with my limited, unexperienced vision. I suppose the process will deserve some reflection, after the huge sigh of relief that will likely last the entirety of spring break.