Researcher Susan Carruthers is professor of history at the University of Warwick and author of several books including the newly published Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America (Cambridge University Press, 2022). As Susan discussed in a previous guest blog post, and in this video, Veterans History Project (VHP) collections served as a key resource in her research for Dear John, providing unparalleled insights into the role of the Dear John letter—and prompting a few laugh-out-loud moments along the way!
For this blog post, I wanted to ask Susan a few questions about the specifics of her research process and her experience in viewing collections at the American Folklife Center Reading Room.
Hi Susan! Thanks for answering questions about your research process. To start: was this your first time using VHP collections?
I’ve been returning to the Veterans History Project for several years now. For a historian, I’m surprisingly bad at remembering dates! But I think my first visit was in or around 2013. At that time, I was researching a previous book, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (Harvard University Press, 2016). I wanted to explore the experiences of men and women who belonged to the armies of occupation after World War II, aiming to uncover as many different perspectives as possible. VHP provided a trove of wonderful material—not just oral histories but also private correspondence, unpublished memoirs, memorabilia, and photographs. Having found VHP so valuable for that project, I headed back again when I began researching Dear John letters. I was confident that VHP collections would yield more eye-opening material about wartime relationships and, in particular, the experience of being “Dear Johned” while serving overseas.
Initially, I imagined that the VHP collections might contain some actual Dear John letters. But that turned out to be a rather naïve hope. Who, after all, keeps the letter in which their beloved tells them that things are over and, by the way, she (or he) has now found someone new? Bona fide Dear John letters are almost entirely non-existent in archives. Instead, what I found in abundance was veterans’ recollections about these break-up notes, the women who wrote them, and how men coped with rejection. So, I found myself researching the history of story-telling about letter-writing. And for that, the Veterans History Project was invaluable—the single largest repository of Dear John stories in the country.
How did you go about locating the oral histories you used in your research?
I began with VHP’s catalog on the Library of Congress website, and I started with the most obvious search term, “Dear John,” and then “Dear John letter,” to try to eliminate false hits that might turn out to be perfectly friendly letters that just happened to begin “Dear John…”. Either way, my search didn’t generate too many hits. Yet I was sure that many veterans must have discussed the experience of receiving a Dear John, as the appearance of these letters recurs so frequently in memoirs, novels and poetry written by veterans. When I came up empty-handed, I emailed VHP senior reference specialist, Megan Harris, who’d been incredibly helpful when I visited the VHP researching my previous book.
Megan was able to run more targeted searches on my behalf, using the metadata that researchers can’t tap into via the public-facing VHP catalog. (“Metadata” here refers to the notes summarizing the contents of individual recorded oral histories in the VHP.) Together, Megan and I came up with some other proxy terms—like “jilting,” “Jody,” “divorce,” and “infidelity”—that might also lead to Dear John stories shared by veterans. Megan compiled a detailed Excel spreadsheet for me containing all the relevant interviews she’d tracked down using our various search terms. In the end, I listened to and/or watched well over 100 different oral history interviews, all containing a Dear John moment.
What kinds of Dear John stories did you find in the VHP collections?
I was surprised to find how very varied these recollections were. They spanned the full gamut of human experience in wartime. Some were distressing stories of young men who’d been so devastated to learn that their romantic partner had ended the relationship that they took their own life. I found several such incidents recounted by veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam—tragic events that had left an indelible impression on men who vividly recalled these deaths decades later. More unexpected to me were Dear John anecdotes told in a totally different register: humorous stories with comic plot twists. Some hinged on the identity of the recipient’s love rival; others detailed ingenious forms of pay-back. Often apocryphal, these tall tales helped me appreciate how GIs dealt with heartbreak by turning it into the stuff of morale-boosting urban legend. Then there were also stories of lives improved by the receipt of a Dear John—freeing the recipient to find his true love in postwar life or, in one case, actually saving his life in a circuitous way.
Did you listen to or watch oral history recordings, or read transcripts, or both?
Wherever possible, I always listened to the oral history recording or watched it if a video existed. I can’t stress strongly enough how much more meaningful interviews become when you hear the conversation between a veteran and their interviewer. It can be tempting to look at a transcript where these have been made. These can be quickly skimmed, and a pdf searched for key words. Ease of use might seem like a great boon to the time-pressed researcher. But words on a page can’t capture tone of voice. They also don’t reveal what kind of rapport existed between interviewee and interviewer—sometimes a relative or close friend. Nor do they convey the emotion in a veteran’s voice as he or she recalls various aspects of their service in uniform and on return to civilian life. It was only from listening to interviews that I was able to fully appreciate how veterans, often years later, have made sense of love and loss in wartime— and how much grief, humor, and grace are all entwined in this dense matrix of feeling.
Listening to veterans talk will invariably give the researcher a much more intimate encounter with their experiences and how they’ve chosen to share them. Spending an hour or so hearing how a veteran tells their story lets you feel that you’ve gotten to know that person—how they think, feel and talk. Transcribed speech just can’t impart that same sense of familiarity, and the empathy that comes along with it.
What advice would you give to other researchers who are interested in using oral history interviews—and specifically VHP collections—in research?
My key piece of advice would be to plan ahead in plenty of time. Having looked at the catalog first, you’d be wise then to contact the VHP archivists and get their help. If you outline as precisely as possible what you’re hoping to find, they’ll be happy to help you locate it. I can’t say enough in praise of the VHP staff! They’re not only very friendly and knowledgeable but also extremely prompt and thorough in replying to inquiries. They take tremendous professional pride in connecting researchers with the VHP’s collections.
If you visit in person—which, of course, I’d strongly recommend—do bear in mind that it’ll take some time for the archivists to get everything prepared in advance. It’s time-consuming work to line up the tapes and disks onto which oral histories are recorded, as well as any other materials you might want to examine, like letters or photograph albums. So, remember to factor in how long it will take the busy VHP staff to get ready for your visit before you arrive, and be sure to contact them at least 10 days in advance.
When you reach the reading room, you’ll find your materials ready and waiting– with the amazing staff on hand to answer questions and get you started!
If you have a research interest that you’d like to pursue using VHP collections, we would love to hear from you! You can contact us at [email protected]. This research guide and video may be helpful in getting you started. We are not able to accept walk-in researchers, so please remember to contact us at least 10 days in advance of your intended visit.