Q&A with Stephen Berry, coeditor of Practical Strangers

This week is pub week for Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln edited by Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder. With the blog series we tried to recreate the delayed nature of correspondence during the Civil War, with a modern twist. To conclude the series, we wanted to ask the editors a few questions. Below Berry elaborates on the historical context for Nathaniel and Elodie’s correspondence, which will help readers understand just how extraordinary it was for these two people to fall in love!

Today, communication is almost instantaneous. News updates come in by the minute and soldiers are able to call home daily. Yet in their time, Nathaniel and Elodie had to wait weeks for a letter to arrive. What was the postal service like during the Civil War?

First we need to back up: The mail system was a critical part of the process by which Americans came to conceive o​f ​themselves as Americans,​ and i​n the years before the Civil War ​the postal service was possibly the most important network stitching together the disparate regions of an expanding empire. When John C. Calhoun urged his countrymen, “Let us conquer space!” he was not making the case for a war on Mars ​but for an expansion of the mail system. “It is thus,” he continued, “that a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic.”

I say ​all ​this because, while the mail system of Elodie and Nathaniel’s day can seem quaint to us, it was revolutionary to them. All of the revolutions in transportation ​that came immediately prior to the Civil War—plankroads​,​ canals​, and railroad​s—had allowed the postal service to shrink the time it took to send and receive a letter, especially on the eastern coast, to less than a week and sometimes just a matter of days.​ (Supposedly Lincoln’s first inaugural address was carried by Pony Express to California in just seven days and seventeen hours.) ​

Now it is true that the Civil War disrupted the mail system, especially in the South. The federal system actually became more profitable because it could abandon all the difficult and expensive routes on the South’s muddy back roads. The Confederacy’s system was always a little rickety and patched together. Both systems were strained by the staggering amount of mail since many soldiers had never been away from home and some of them wrote as much as a letter a day. (Nathaniel often wrote two!) By war’s end you could usually expect to get a letter in two weeks, but some places in the south, especially cities and forts under siege, were cut off for much longer stretches.

Saying all this, I should remind folks: instantaneity and intimacy do not always go together. Absence sometimes does make the heart grow fonder, and the fact that Elodie and Nathaniel had to wait to hear from each other may have been as tantalizing as it was frustrating.

Slavery is not directly addressed in Nathaniel and Elodie’s correspondence. Though Elodie complains about her lack of agency as a woman, she aligns her plight with that of the Confederacy, not the people enslaved there. For instance, in one letter she writes, ​”as this is the age when Secession, Freedom, and Rights are asserted, I am claiming mine and do not doubt but I shall succeed in obtaining them as I have some one to help me in my efforts.​”​ Does she or Nathaniel ever allude to this disconnect in the letters?

What a great question: I have thought about this endlessly. How could they be so obtuse? How could they not see that they were fighting on the wrong side of a great moral question? How could the best of them claim to “love” their “servants” without realizing that they were defiling the word ‘love.’ And how could the worst of them treat their fellow human beings as a living resource to be bartered, expended, and abused? What I have learned is that human beings have an absolutely staggering capacity for denying an open evil that they ​have learned to live with and come to depend on. A sense of entitlement is a kind of blindness, and the larger the entitlement, the blinder we are.

In the introduction of Practical Strangers, you write that Nathaniel and Elodie fell in love by mail. Why do you think Elodie accepted Nathaniel’s unexpected marriage proposal after being acquainted with him for only a few weeks?

Another great question! ​I guess I really do think that Elodie would never have married him under normal circumstances. He was on his third marriage; he was older, had a receding hairline, was reserved almost to coldness; she was supposedly only visiting and eager to get back to Kentucky. But I have this theory about time. Every once in a while, time becomes elastic; things that would not normally be possible suddenly become not just possible but likely. There was an absolute rash of marriages in the first months of the war; not all of them could have been Cold Mountain love-fests. Some of them must have been bad ideas. I don’t think Elodie and Nathaniel were a bad idea. I think they really did learn to find each other whole.

By the way, there’s a great quote that underlines my point that people living through the war could feel time accelerating: “It is extraordinary how completely the idea of gradual emancipation has been dissipated from the public mind everywhere, by the progress of events,” marveled The New York Times in 1864. “Before the rebellion, it was accounted the very extreme of Anti-Slavery fanaticism to believe in the possibility of immediate emancipation without social ruin . . . But all these gradual methods are now hardly more thought of than if they had been obsolete a century.”

On the blog and via Twitter, we​’ve tried to recreate the sort of delay experienced at a time when communication over long distances was done through letters delivered by train or horseback. How should the modern reader approach this collection of letters? What should he keep in mind while reading?

​The title is important: They were practically strangers. Imagine trying to fall in love by mail. ​Each time they write, they are distracted, preoccupied by their own personal stuff, but they are also trying to draw the other in, to explain themselves and present themselves, to negotiate the terms of their own surrender.

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