A scrap of paper

17 May 2013

Posted by amy

Something exciting happened when Shane and I did our first tandem proofreading session earlier this week. Since the word "exciting" can rarely be applied to the act of proofreading, I thought I would share the story.

Our task was to proofread transcriptions of miscellaneous pieces of paper that for one reason or another were stored in the same box as Watkins's diary. When the technician at Harvard Library scanned them, s/he numbered them all 1_0001 (which is why we are calling this group of scans "Folder 1"). For a long time, I thought these loose papers were of minimal interest. For example, there are several notes written in pencil -- probably by Maud Skinner, who with her husband Otis acquired the diary in the 1920s -- indicating the date ranges of various diary volumes. There's also a scrap of paper with nothing but the words "This has a value of 5 or 10 dollars." So, it's a motley mix of things.

I was reading aloud from the facsimile, with Shane noting corrections on the first draft of the transcription, when I came across a parenthetical that potentially sheds light on a question that has haunted me for a while -- ever since I first read the diary, beginning to end, in the Houghton Library reading room.

The parenthetical in question is on a scrap of paper in Folder 1. (You can see it here.) It features Watkins's handwriting, but at two different points in his life. The top half of the page lists some roles from Othello and some corresponding numbers (perhaps the number of lines per role? we would have to investigate). This is dated 1844. The rest of the page is written in what I have been calling "Elder Harry's Hand." While reading the diary in the summer of 2011, I was intrigued to see that in some volumes, strings of words -- even entire entries -- had been scratched out. At some point, someone (Watkins? Amy Lee?) decided to redact bits of content. But even more intriguing to me were the pages that were added (interleaved) into the diary, written in Elder Harry's Hand. They offer longer, expanded stories of specific events mentioned in the diary. For example, one addendum includes a fascinating account of the audience's reaction to a performance of Othello that Watkins gave in Georgia right before the Civil War. For a number of reasons (too many to enumerate in this short post), I developed a hypothesis that Elder Harry made these edits during the last 5-10 years of his life, sometime in the 1880s. I enjoy imagining him at that time, collecting and organizing documents that were close to his heart, planning to give them to his daughter; with an eye toward posterity, he redacted what he wished to remain secret, and amended what he felt warranted additional explanation.

So, back to the scrap of paper. Basically, it includes a clue about when Watkins was making these last, late-in-life edits. This note seems to refer to Watkins's promptbook for Othello (no longer with the Skinner Family Papers). Here is the passage in question:

This book belonged to the Post Library at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, (then Iowa Territory). I joined the 5th Infantry in 1838. (Company I) The library was an excellent one, and I was considered its best patron. It contained a large number of plays from which we selected all we needed for representation in the Post Theatre. The company was made up from the soldiers stationed there. I played the principal female characters. We gave a performance every fortnight. Major Plympton commanded the Post. His daughter loaned me her dresses. I was there three years 1838 to 41. The officers of my company Captain Martin Scott, 1st Lieutenant W. W. Chapman, 2d Lieut. D. H. McPhail. Scott was killed at Molina [sic] del Rey, Mexico 1847. McPhail died in Brooklyn, L.I. 1883.

Chapman is now (1886) a retired Brigadier General, living at Green Bay. He and myself are all that remain of old Company I.

That little parenthetical in the last sentence holds the clue: he refers to "now" as 1886, indicating that he wrote the note that year. And, I would argue, this can be viewed as evidence that Watkins made his final edits and additions to the diary around that time. Granted, this is just a guess. But it's a more-educated guess than I was able to make before.

There it was: a provisional answer to a question that has long plagued me, sitting between parentheses on a random scrap of paper.