Dispatches of Love
By Anuraag Girdhar
Published on Friday, May 4, 2012
Parents are pretty old and kind of weird. But even now, most of us still tell them what’s going on in our lives and listen to what they have to say. Today, however, technology has afforded us many different ways to communicate with our parents. A few centuries ago, a pen and paper were Dartmouth students’ only means of communicating with dear old mom and pop while they were away at college.
Surpraisingly enough, apart from the heavily stylized cursive hand, a written correspondence dated from 1857 between Dartmouth alumnus Chase Presacott Parsons and his mother — which is now a part of the College’s special collections in Rauner Library — is actually not incredibly different from a daily or weekly Skype calls today.
In his letter, Parsons relates an encounter he had with an old friend named Joseph in Bennington, Vt. As is to be expected, much of what Chase conveys is rather mundane. In Chase’s letter, he writes that Joseph said he enjoyed “the most healthy time he has a known” with Chase (his insistence on euphemism is endearing), and Chase sees it prudent to comment on Joseph’s finances. Apparently, Joseph had done quite well for himself, having amassed over $400 in the month of August alone. But in a salute to Parsons’ epistolary style, he manages to terminate a decidedly uninteresting letter with unimaginable abruptness. “I have no more time, so I must close,” Chase wrote.
So even back then, Dartmouth inculcated a culture of all-nighters and tactlessness among its students. Good to know.
A few decades later, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Eberhart ’25 wrote a series of letters to his father (typed, fortunately for me), which are now kept on file in Rauner. On Jan. 25, 1925, Eberhart recounts his exams to his father. However, in true Dartmouth spirit, he proves himself to be somewhat more interested in Winter Carnival.
“I wired Claire Childs, but she can’t come,” Eberhart wrote. “It looks like I would be a stag.”
Poor Dick. I guess he will have to be satisfied with the straight-A he expects to get in his Chaucer class.
After exams, Richard said he “loafed for five days, skiing and sleeping.” While Richard took in the New England winter scenery, however, members of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity (now known as Alpha Delta) were preparing to leave for Montreal “for the weekend, the main attraction being to imbibe of spirits.” Richard wasn’t particularly enthused.
Of course, it would be a grave injustice to discuss Dartmouth’s history without so much as a mention of Dr. Seuss. In the parlance of our times, Theodor Geisel ’25 would best be characterized as a troll. He was a classmate of Richard Eberhart, though Geisel was much more of a brash populist than the poet laureate he is known as today.
When his father inquired, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” Geisel simply proposed that he would “win a thing called the Campbell Fellowship in English Literature” and go to Oxford University. His father, in his haste, misread the letter and informed the local newspaper that his son was definitively going to Oxford. As fate would have it, Geisel was ultimately not awarded the fellowship. To save face, his father did send him to Oxford... at full expense.
Our parents have been consciously aware of our existence longer than we have, so they often attempt to cleverly insinuate that they have insights on our own lives that we do not. This is probably true to some degree. Whatever the case may be, this dynamic fosters extreme intimacy in our conversations with our parents. These records of communication afford us a channel into the minds of these Dartmouth alumni, and they provide a valuable window through which to understand their life and times.