This article also appears in the Library of Congress Magazine.
The letter, written on vellum, is more than 500 years old. It is one of the most consequential missives in world history. It is one of the top treasures of the Library, sealed away in a secure cocoon.
Written in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the west, the letter from Pope Alexander VI to the Spanish monarchy gives them papal authority to forever claim “all islands and lands, discovered and to be discovered, toward the west and south, that were not under the actual temporal rule of any Christian powers.”
Many scholars believe it is the first written reference to the New World, and it lays out the deadly course of colonialism that Europeans were to inflict on the peoples of the Americas.
The Library’s scribal copy of the letter, a papal bull known by its Latin name of Dudum siquidem, is from around 1502. It is one of three copies known to still exist.
As world-changing as it was, it’s only one letter in the Library’s stunning collection of correspondence that has helped shape the world as we know it, stretching back more than a thousand years. Written by the famous and the forgotten in any number of languages and dialects from all over the world; penned, etched, scrawled, typed and penciled in by kings, presidents, scholars, soldiers, nurses, artists, trade workers, escapees from slavery, musicians, baseball players and beauticians; about subjects from the weighty to the whimsical; the letters can be found on everything from ancient vellum (as calfskin is called) to dime store postcards.
Let’s look at a couple of thank you notes, those timeless missives of good manners, to get an idea of the range we’re describing.
Here’s one in Latin that Ivo, the bishop of Chartres in France, wrote to Matilda of Scotland, queen consort of Henry I, around 1100 A.D., thanking her for help in repairing his church’s roof. And here’s one from Fred MacMurray, cast as the antihero in 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” to James M. Cain, author of the original book, thanking him for saying kind words about his performance.
Dates and documents record the bare bones of history, of what happened when and where. Personal letters tell what it felt like at the time, capturing the humanity of the age. Intimate, rarely written for publication, they are poignant reminders that while epochs and eras change, the affairs of the heart do not.
“Kiss mamma’s hand for me 1000000000 times,” wrote Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a sunny 14-year-old, on March 30, 1770, to his sister, Marie. He was performing in Italy. Like most kids, musical prodigies or no, who are way from home, he was missing his mom.
“It’s 4:00 in the morning — after this long day,” Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Leonard Bernstein on June 8, 1968, sleepless after the funeral of her brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated. Bernstein, a close friend, had conducted the music at the service.
Now, as the nation reeled in the long hours of the night, she was huddled alone at a desk in her mother’s Georgetown home, no doubt haunted by the earlier assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. “Everyone has gone to bed — but I just want to stay up by myself — to think about so many things — and about today — In awful times — I think the only thing that comforts you is the goodness in people —”
Love, one is reminded in this cascade of letters, takes many different forms in many different eras. John Carvel Arnold, a Union soldier in the Civil War, was stationed near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on Aug. 28, 1864, pining for his wife, Mary Ann, back home in Pennsylvania.
“I want you to write to me oftener than you do,” he wrote, even though she was illiterate.
“Dear and Beloved Husband,” she had a friend write back two months later, showing a trace of marital affection and irritation, “you no (sic) that i can’t write myself and so i can’t write back when i pleas (sic).”
The Library, the largest in world history, has hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of these moments, frozen in time.
Here is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet and philosopher of his day, writing to an obscure newspaper reporter named Walt Whitman on July 21, 1855. Emerson was extolling Whitman’s self-published book of poetry that almost no one had read. It was called “Leaves of Grass.”
“I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson famously wrote, his letter launching Whitman to fame, saying that his “free brave thought” had resulted in “incomparable things said incomparably well.”
The collections are also filled with other voices, singing not of America’s glorious raptures, but railing against discrimination, violence and oppression, the fiery American determination that insists on the freedoms promised in the Constitution.
“I will never consent to have our sex considered in an inferiour (sic) point of light,” wrote Abigail Adams, the second first lady of the United States on July 19, 1799, to her sister.
Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation’s first female physician, on March 4, 1851, wrote a spirited rebuke to her friend Lady Noel Byron, who had suggested that women physicians should take a “second place” to men.
“I do not wish to give (women) a first place, still less a second one — but the most complete freedom, to take their true place whatever it may be.”
In January of 1966, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, jazz singer and activist Nina Simone (famed for her iconic “Mississippi Goddam”) urged her friend and fellow jazz artist Hazel Scott, who had been living in Paris, to come back home: “…everybody is in fight now, Hazel — everybody — And it’s exciting!!!”
There are also moments when one can see great names of history caught up in frustrations known to us all. Who, in an era when email and texting has replaced much of traditional letter writing, hasn’t written out an angry email — and then, upon mature reflection, hit the delete button?
Abraham Lincoln knew your pain.
On July 14, 1863, he wrote a three-page letter to the nation’s chief military leader, Gen. George Meade, chastising him for not pursuing the defeated Confederate Army after Gettysburg. And then, thinking the better of it, stuffed it in an envelope, writing on the outside: “To Gen. Meade, never sent or signed.”
And finally, there are glimpses of moments that make the nation what it is.
Woody Guthrie, one of the most influential singers of the 20th century, was always moved by the idea that the nation belonged to the millions of its unknowns, the sorts of hardworking men and women that Whitman and Zora Neale Hurston and so many others had written about. He wrote the first draft of “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940 to emphasize the point, with lyrics that would be finalized as:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me
A few months later, on Sept. 19, he wrote to Alan Lomax, his friend who, along with his father, John, headed the Library’s Archive of American Folk Song (now part of the American Folklife Center). Guthrie’s letter hums with his twangy Oklahoma accent, his wisdom of the prairies, the ribbon of highway peeling away into the distance, the song of the nation at the tip of his pen:
“All I know how to do Alan is to keep a plowing right on down the avenue watching what I can see and listening to what I can hear and trying to learn about everybody I meet every day and try to make one part of the country feel like they know the other part and one end of it help the other end.”
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