The Physicality of History

Letter from First World War provided by Sherwood Hubbell family

Student-faculty research unravels interwoven lives

by Tony Moore

"This is not a story you already know," says Professor of English Wendy Moffat. "And it's a panoptical of the American experience at the time." The story Moffat refers to is one she's unraveling for an upcoming book about WWI correspondent Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, mental-health pioneer Thomas Salmon and artist Henry M. Hoyt.

"It's a book about three Americans in the First World War and their experience—a cultural history disguised as a group biography," she says. Working with Moffat on the book—which is currently at the research, research and more research stage—is Colin Tripp '14.

For now, Tripp is playing the role of a small cog in a large, turning wheel: manning the scanner, inputting 77 letters and 10 postcards that constitute only part of the material Moffat has uncovered chronicling the histories of the people at the heart of the story.

"These three people keep intersecting," Moffat says, "They are impelled toward one another by the trauma of their shared experiences. And some of the material is not yet in archives, anywhere, so that's been an interesting aspect for me and Colin."

After the scanning is complete and the 87 original documents have been returned to those who provided them, Tripp will begin his work parsing the scanned text for further discovery. "I'm looking forward to working more with the letters themselves," says the English major. "This is my first time working with primary documents like these."

If the little he's really seen of the letters is any indication, the project will deepen once he moves beyond scanning.

"I've been skimming as I've been scanning," he says. "On one of them, [the writer] did a doodle on the back to his mom, and it was really humanizing. Before, they were just letters from some pilot, but that really made it clear that this was someone who had a life. It was a little overwhelming."

Moffat has had experience with this sort of moment before, specifically when writing her award-winning biography of the novelist E.M. Forster. As she puts it, "The physicality of archival stuff can really take you aback."

Read more:

Another of Tripp's student-faculty research projects: Failure Is Only the Beginning

Moffat's book on E.M. Forster, A Great Unrecorded History, garners praise: Professor's Book Lauded by Critics

Published Aug. 8, 2013