Masthead: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project

Transcribing the Documents

Project Newsletter Fall 1993.

Amelia Bloomer was the first editor to complain about transcribing Elizabeth Cady Stanton's manuscripts. The February 1850 issue of the Lily reported a complaint from Stanton about the compositor's errors in her articles; "but dear reader," Bloomer replied, "if you could see her chirography you would wonder that he makes anything readable out of it.  It requires a scholar well versed in hierogliphics to render it into plain English."

Both Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote quite consistently but with little regard for those of us fated to transcribe their words and grammar into print. Stanton might protest to a newspaper editor that her article appeared with "halts" where she wrote "hurts" because she expected an accurate final text. Our goal is different: to represent as best we can what the author placed on the paper. We need not only to recover words and grasp illusive syntax, we need also to symbolize in print what we see. If Anthony fumbled with an unfamiliar metaphor, that is "evidence" to be preserved. "[T]hus you see," Anthony wrote to a friend on 12 October 1879, "while our women will thus allow themselves  to be used by and for the Republican party—while it ignores our just claims—there is no lever for us we have no fulcrum on which to plant our lever—"

Precise in her choice of words, Stanton's pen did not differentiate "these" from "those." An unusual word rendered indistinctly can produce variant readings. Writing from London in 1840 to Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Stanton relayed a message from Lucretia Mott that "you have both been in a state of [illegible] long enough." Her meaning is clear in context; the famous Grimke sisters had not lectured in two years, and their voices were needed again in the cause of woman's rights. Editors of the Weld and Grimke letters (1934) read the word as "reticency [?]," indicating their doubts. We think she wrote "retiracy," another unusual noun that meets the occasion.

Indistinct words combined with imprecise or absent punctuation can create serious confusion. In the same letter by Stanton, editors of the Weld and Grimke letters saw: "Garrison tempted Christ [?] I might rather say, in woman's rights, ..." Our transcript reads "Garrison touched dwelt I might rather say, on woman's rights, ..." Without a comma, without the rhythm, the shapes of her handwriting became meaningless. Drilled in Stanton's rhythms, we begin to recognize her construction, as in this similar sentence: "Tell Laura I have ... succeeded in making or preparing rather potatoes in her peculiar style." We do confess, however, that "rather" in the latter case eluded us for a time while we looked for adjectives referring to potatoes.

Although Anthony could punctuate a letter by recognizable rules, she didn't always take the trouble. Typical is this bit about a vacation, written home on 12 August 1846: "Came to Troy Saturday morn & found a boy there, with Eugenes horse & waggon, we piled in the boy sat on the trunk & I drove, we had a pretty good, the day being some cloudy & some windy"  At age 26, inside the circle of her family, she broke the rules of language and sputtered, adopting no consistent voice. To modernize or standardize these "sentences" would destroy curious and valuable evidence about Anthony and language. Our rendition of her awkwardness in early letters can only try to provide clues enough to her intention (as best we can discover it) to make reading their message a possibility.

As Anthony matured, she developed a fluid style of letter-writing and diary-keeping that allowed her to spill thoughts quickly, along a string of dashes. From the same 1879 letter cited above: "I have religiously devoted this entire Sunday to doing up long neglected duties of letter answering—until my every muscle of fingers wrist & shoulder is lame—and the day has been hot—hot—like the past two weeks—" Because we strive to preserve the differences in print, readers of the edition will see and "hear" the change as we can when we work from the manuscripts.