By Kaitlin Hooker, Bookmans Editorial Assistant Intern and UofA Student

When the Bookmans Flagstaff roof collapsed, locals visited us in a temporary tent that we set up. They brought us their used books, music and movies for us to buy and trade, and–in the process–refill our depleted stock. The Oran Follett Letters are one of such items. The letters are between a couple, Oran and Eliza Follett, though they are not married at the time of this correspondence. The letters span the spring, summer and fall of 1832, sent from Oran’s home of Buffalo, NY to Eliza’s place of residence in Rochester, NY. We only have Oran’s letters and responses to Eliza. Though a clearly intelligent and caring man, Oran is not always the romantic fiancé one dreams of reading about in love letters.

Transcribing the Letters of Oran Follett

The letters begin as a standard exchange between a married couple. Oran consistently praises Eliza’s kind heart and good sense and sends his love and affections with every sign off. However, today’s cultural lens reveals unsettling points within their correspondence. For example, Oran corrects his beloved on her use of the word “esquire”. Eliza addressed Oran as “O.F. Esq.” in her letters, though he is not an esquire. He not only asks her to stop this, but sharply corrects her, “When I get to ‘Squire’ I will open to show the dignity.”

Oran urges Eliza to “shorten your countenance”, referring, in this case, to her long responses to his letters. He repeatedly chastises her for long breaks between responses, urging, and even threatening, her to get back to him quicker. In a letter dated August 14, he writes, “I am the most unlucky dog in the world. I never yet attempted anything in the shape of rolling, but what I was taken to be more than half in earnest. You have shown alarm at my letter of date, and so, like a school girl, you put up your lip and wouldn’t write because–what?–I had attempted an awkward compliment for your punctuality! Now, my dear girl, that wasn’t right.” Four lines later, he receives a late letter from Eliza, acknowledges it and makes a brief apology. He shares this seemingly insincere sign off near the middle of their correspondence, “Kiss little Eliza for me–tell Claudia–what you think I would say, if there.” Poor Claudia.

An outbreak of cholera preoccupies Oran in these letters. Encountering an outbreak in his home of Buffalo, he acts as a first-hand witness to the chaos and fear surrounding the disease and its spread. However, he remains highly skeptical about the ways in which the disease is contracted and the methods local citizens take to try to stop it. It appears that he is right in his assumption that cholera is the result of dirty, unkept environments near “marsh” water, but wrong in that he believes the disease lives in the air, ready to be breathed and unleashed on any person in the vicinity. He also attributes the disease to lower income neighborhoods and areas, blaming poorer people for spreading the disease and the hysteria surrounding it. He sends Eliza at least two extremely long letters that focus exclusively on the topic, lecturing her about his (incorrect) views on the disease, urging her to keep her good sense about it and not give into those who believe differently about its spread and effects.

Ultimately, the hardest part about transcribing the letters was not Oran’s treatment of his fiancée or his incorrect assumptions about cholera, but his handwriting. Oh, the cursive scrawl! It took 2 weeks writing {busiup?} before realizing Follett wrote double cursive s’s as lower case p’s and then going back to make this change–to the word “business”–within several transcriptions. Though the cursive is beautiful and unique, it had been too long since most of us last encountered such handwriting to pick up letters that were not written in a more modern script and style.