Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> True and Candid Compositions >> Introduction: Value of Documentary Histories
True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina
Old East Building
Value of Documentary Histories

Documentary histories like this electronic publication represent an established form of scholarship that makes available the substance and quality of sources not easily accessible to a wide audience. The edited documents are meant to have the same evidentiary value as the original sources. In this instance, a digitized image of the original source accompanies every edited document. Though documentary histories are necessarily selective, they can remind us of a rich past, prompt renewed attention to neglected questions, and dust off what people once knew but subsequently forgot. Most documentary histories of institutions, including colleges and universities, present texts written by influential figures—politicians, college presidents, faculty members, and individuals serving on important committees—who shape an institution's policies and chart its course. Typically they do not include the work of students. Though colleges and universities exist to educate young scholars, students themselves have been regarded as transient figures passing through an institution but exerting little influence on it. Students "receive" an education but are presumed to leave little of value behind. Their writing often is considered the flawed work of apprentices whose potential to shape the future is still untapped.

This collection suggests, however, that histories of higher education that do not take into account the work of students ignore an important source of evidence. By making available many different kinds of previously unpublished student writing from the antebellum period, "True and Candid Compositions" grants students center stage. Their voices tell the story of the antebellum University's struggle to establish itself, its rise to prosperity by the 1850s, and its gradual decline during and after the Civil War. Their writing illustrates what it meant, in fact, to be an educated, white, southern young man in the first half of nineteenth century. Their words confirm and sometimes revise the conclusions of historians.

Neglecting what antebellum students have to say about their lives and work also has deprived us of reading much rewarding, intrinsically interesting material. Meeting these antebellum students through their "true and candid compositions" is an extraordinary experience. Anyone who has come upon someone else's diary or letters knows that reading such materials is a compelling pleasure, punctuated by occasional astonishment, laughter, and puzzlement. Each document raises questions about the writer and the context in which it was written, sending us on a historical scavenger hunt to understand better the words on the page. Now and then, leafing through folders of papers has yielded a remarkable find: the schoolwork of President James Knox Polk, for example; several previously unpublished poems by the slave-poet George Moses Horton, who wrote acrostics for students seeking to impress their girlfriends; and an unassuming grade book that helps reconstruct a faculty member's work with his students. Striking too are some students' views of social privilege and of slavery. But less startling discoveries can be just as memorable: the poignant letter of a sick student who dies eleven days later; a description of chaotic campus scenes as students prepare to go on vacation; and the delightful tale told in King James English of "Gooly," whose trip through the woods to a local whorehouse was thwarted when the "trees" (tutors and faculty members) chased him back to campus. These writings bring antebellum students to life, as if they were present to us today. Sometimes the pleasure of meeting them is tempered by knowing what they do not, that their lives will be cut short by disease or that the great futures they envision for themselves will be blasted by the Civil War.

In some cases, the intrinsic interest of documents included here is not readily apparent. Some class compositions, for example, will strike modern readers as dull, full of lofty generalizations intended to appeal to professors. Several formal speeches seem to drone on forever, their flowery phrases almost predictably clichéd. A brief, banal essay on capital punishment avoids stating clearly whether the writer favors or opposes the death penalty. But these compositions are instructive nevertheless. They express values that the curriculum was designed to instill, or they define what it meant to fail an assignment (in the case of the essay on capital punishment), or they illustrate the rhetorical moves students thought they should make in constructing academic and public discourse. Despite the exaggerated rhetorical figures and overstated arguments, such writing underscores how much students valued the ability to speak and write well in public, even as they struggled to shape appropriate claims, evidence, and language into acceptable productions.

When the work of students fails to satisfy contemporary standards for good writing and easy reading, we may need to ask such questions as "Why did someone save this?" or "What can we learn from this writing about the context in which it was composed?" Senior speeches and commencement addresses, for example, represented significant public performances, deserving of a student's best efforts both because the professor of rhetoric had to approve the speech and because a good speech drew praise from faculty members, family, and friends. In the case of some class compositions corrected by the professor of rhetoric, their interest lies in understanding what sorts of instruction students received through written comments. It was minimal. Faculty members typically corrected students' papers by substituting a few preferred words or phrases for the student's language. Though grades were not assigned to individual compositions, their minimal corrections reveal that much of the academic writing included in this book met contemporary standards for acceptable prose. Even though some documents initially seem uninteresting or unsuccessful, by and large they represent satisfactory, sometimes even meritorious work in the view of those who wrote and preserved them.

In contrast to compositions and speeches, the intrinsic interest of letters and diaries will be self-evident. They are much more conversational. As records of daily life, letters and diaries report on students' struggles with their studies as well as their battles with bedbugs. Students complain about the food and the duty to attend daily prayers. They explain how they spent their money and what they hope to accomplish after graduation. They describe such special occasions as attending commencement, meeting Gen. Lafayette or Andrew Jackson, and watching Confederate volunteers go off to war. Letters and diaries sometimes characterize the relationship between students and faculty members as a significant struggle against authority. Though most students respected faculty members, professors nevertheless found themselves caricatured in drawings on the campus belfry, or pelted with rocks, or on more than one occasion nearly blown up when students exploded gunpowder placed inside a recitation room doorknob or under a rostrum. The presence of gunpowder, knives, and illegal alcohol on campus made for lively periods of "spreeing" and outright rebellion. If caught and suspended, students could show great skill in writing contrite letters of apology to win reinstatement and avoid displeasing their parents.

Letters also provide important evidence about students' relationships to relatives and friends. They show students capable of multiple personas. Letters addressed to both parents, for example, generally report on a student's studies and his health. Letters to fathers, however, detail a student's finances, comment on changes in the faculty, or discuss politics. Mothers receive pleasant descriptions of a student's living quarters and local social events as well as requests for new clothes. Writing to brothers and sisters, students invariably chide them for failing to write oftener. Younger brothers as well as sisters are encouraged to study diligently and to "remember me to my friends." From time to time students assume the role of writing teacher, commenting on the importance of writing well, urging youngsters to improve their spelling, or offering instructions on how to fold a letter properly for mailing. Now and then a student confides his doubts about pleasing his father, staying in school, finding a suitable career, or winning the affection of a sweetheart. Letters to friends, especially former students, attempt to sustain the important relationships developed during the college years. In addition to updating their correspondents on news from the campus, students point with pride to their work in the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, defining between the two debating societies the kind of passionate competition that attends intercollegiate sports today. The letters and diaries included here reveal that students born and educated 150 to 200 years ago are not so different from students today. They stand with one foot in adulthood, the other, squarely in adolescence.