When I first read one of James Merrill Linn’s letters, the script itself felt both foreign and strangely familiar. Ever since 6th grade, I have been encouraged to write in cursive with incentives such as extra credit or praise until it became a genuine habit continuing to this day. Although my handwriting can be quite artistic and neat when I want, if I am rushing to write an in-class essay or scribble down some notes, my handwriting becomes its own manuscript in need of deciphering. In this sense, I felt a bond with Linn’s script that I don’t usually encounter, given most all my other friends and professors simply use a print script in writing. However, there is more than a century of difference that would account for the difficulty in understanding certain words or phrases. Also, certain letters took time to recognize, but once I did the whole process became easier.
My procedure for transcribing consisted of splitting my computer screen between the image of Linn’s letter and a Word document, allowing me to simultaneously read and transcribe. Nevertheless, for certain
documents, I ended up printing them out so I could highlight and markup words I
couldn’t understand to get a fresh perspective when figuring them out. However, nothing compared to actually being able to read the document in person. I really enjoyed having the trip to the Archives as our culminating experience for transcribing because it was as if all my struggles with certain phrases or words were resolved as soon as I held the document itself. This is especially true in relation to my first document, which was a letter from John Merrill Linn to his brother John Blair Linn, where in the middle of the first page JML drew a diagram (of what I would assume to be the arrangement of their housing situation) over the text, making it nearly impossible to read unless in person. Seeing the actual document, you can see the pen marks and indentation, making it easier to figure out if something is a conscious marking or merely a smudge. Also, in comparison to simply looking at the image on the computer, being able to hold the document, you don’t need to scroll from word to word, or line to line, but instead you have everything before you in one place— providing context that allows you to easily connect sentences to the letter’s subject on a whole. Yet, even if no original copy were available (though having one is extremely convenient) having a scan or picture still allows you to transcribe most all of the document—given that the original document itself is legible.
When I encoded the semantics, I went through the document methodically and marked names and places. Then I decided to define terms such as “North Carolinians” or “Virginians” as organizations, given that Linn was referring to their military establishments, as well as the Greek Organizations he mentioned. Then, the objects I found most relevant were those such as the ones he personally acquired or wished to, like the “big knife,” as well as the biscuits and butter he beautifully described at the end. For the most part, JML talked about larger military plans versus detailing objects or things so there weren’t as many objects to be marked—nor traits or states for that matter.
Now since my letter was dated February 11th, it is before the journal entries begin, so I can only look at the entries afterward. However, the entries seem much more cheerful than what was expressed in the letter. My assumption is that the dreadful rain he referred to in his letter cleared up by the time he wrote those entries. Also in the second entry he talked of finally having clean clothes, which would definitely boost one’s mood. The other possibility is that he might just sound more pessimistic or somber when talking to his brother versus being quite upbeat in his own personal journal. However, there is no way to know for sure.
Dale Hartman says
Printing out the scanned document and transcribing from that was a great idea. On the screen, you can zoom in close to words, but you lose the ability to scan around the page easily to look at other letters and words. With a physical page, there’s no scrolling, and nothing gets cut off. In addition, you can highlight and mark anything you want very easily.