On occasion the Acadiensis blog and Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History will share content. The following was originally posted on Borealia – it is shared here with their kind permission.
by Angela Duffett
In the summer of 1853, a 17 year old boy left St. John’s, Newfoundland on a mercantile ship owned by his father. Bound for Ireland and the seminary, he kept a journal chronicling the passage. It is unclear who Richard Howley intended as the audience for his writing, but he frequently addressed the reader as “you,” as in this passage acknowledging the voyage’s monotony: “You may perhaps expect more variety in this Journal especially as it is written in a situation so new to me, but it appears to me that there is a great sameness in a sea voyage… I just write everything as it happens and this is a true and exact account of my passage.”
“A true and exact account” indeed. Letters and diaries present unique challenges for historians. Self-censorship, self-aggrandizement, omissions, and exaggerations pepper their pages. A number of studies have focussed on the act of letter and diary writing and the art of interpreting these sources. Letters and diaries provide tantalizing glimpses into how people lived their lives, bringing details and the odd secret to the fore. But researchers know that these sources more often focus on the quotidian: what the weather was like, what a person had for dinner, when the lilacs bloomed. As a researcher turns the pages, absorbing ordinary detail after ordinary detail, a picture moves into focus: for historians concerned with place and space, letters and journals provide crucial depictions of how places looked, sounded and smelled, and of how individuals interacted with and moved through the landscape.