The Impulse to Preserve

I was talking with a friend this morning about my research into American farm women’s history, research that became a dissertation that became a book.

As part of that work, I interviewed and corresponded with several hundred women who lived on or worked on farms between 1910 and 1960.

One of the findings that emerged didn’t actually make it into the final book, because it was interesting, but not part of the original research questions. And that is the impulse to preserve their own histories that permeated so much of the information shared with me.

Numerous memoirs, hand-typed, or self-published, came to my desk. Whole boxes of family journals and memoirs (which I have kept, unable to part with memories) came to me with the line, “I hope you can use this. We have no use for it but are glad someone might.” Some elderly women in care centers talked to me with tears in their eyes, voices soft as they related stories from their childhoods, and talked to me of “Mother.”

One of the connections I made in my talk this morning made me think about this work within the context of my Laura Ingalls Wilder research.

Wilder’s personal story, when told, often starts with the idea that as a “retired” farm woman, she decided to write out the memories of her childhood so that they wouldn’t be lost. While this is ostensibly true, it’s also a carefully crafted myth spun by her publishers and daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to lend mystique and pathos to the elderly woman sharing her stories.

Wilder, in fact, wrote for publication for years before her “retirement,” and Lane acted as guide and mentor in many ways to her mother, shepherding her career. The work of her writing is disguised by the myth that developed around her.

However, the myth itself seemed to inspire something fascinating: the impulse to preserve the memories before they’re lost.

Numerous volumes of memoir rest in my office. Some I drew on as I wrote the first book. But upon reflection, I think there’s another work here, something that ties into the reflection of memory, nostalgia, and a search for a past that seemed somehow better.

And yet, too, many of the women I spoke to were clear about the hazards of being a woman on the farm, as well as the joys. Lack of adequate medical care, schooling, and public transportation topped that list, along with the sheer volume of work ascribed to women only.

I’m not clear on where this work will go, yet, and I’ll need to go and re-read my own works to find the right direction. But I want to encourage those who have written their own histories and families’ histories down. An historian is always looking for your work. Everyday history needs to be preserved, and it’s often challenging to find those original resources.

(And yes, that includes preserving letters.)

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