Love Letters: From Beginning to Happily Ever After
Most archives have a significant collection of correspondence, and Southwestern University is no exception. So I’d like to take some time to look at my favorite form of correspondence: the love letter.
Whether it’s the early stages of hopeful courtship, the heartful declarations of passion after a proposal, or the familiar expressions of love and excitement in the days before marriage, we have some wonderful examples in our collections. The ones I will highlight here are from the Johnson Family Papers, Orceneth Fisher Papers, and Bertha McKee Dobie Collection.
The most notable member of the Johnson family was Lizzie Johnson. When you start to look into her history, you discover that she was best known for her business acumen and success in the cattle industry. But when you look at her incoming correspondence from her young adulthood and prior to her marriage to Hezekiah G. Williams in 1879, you start to learn that she had quite the number of suitors interested in her. Perhaps it says something of her character that she ignored all these men and only married at the age of 39 to a man who signed a prenuptial agreement stating that she would keep control of all her property and finances.
As you read through these letters, you begin to pick out an interesting pattern. There are a number of notes from men requesting to begin a correspondence with her or escort her to various events. But more significantly, there are a number of complaints from her correspondents that she does not respond to their letters with enough regularity. One from T.W. Thomas lamented, “I am at a loss to know why you treat me so, unless you do not wish to continue correspondence any longer.” He went on to state that perhaps they should go their separate ways, explaining, “I see plainly you don’t wish to marry.” And he was not the only one that Johnson rejected by way of simply not responding to letters. A note from B.M. Burke finally gave her an ultimatum, saying “I have waited impatiently for a letter from you[…]and you have not responded as I think you should[…]unless you will reply to my letter and send me your likeness, that without delay you will please return together with my chart, the likeness I sent you.”
However, not all of Lizzie’s amorous correspondents were angry. A William H. Day began one letter by saying, “I have no apology to make for addressing you this note, I do it to disclose a passion that I have long indulged for you.” He ended these professions by declaring, “a hand, and loving heart, is yours if you think me worthy of your affections.” But perhaps the most amusing and notorious letter (among the staff here at Special collections, at least), is one that is comprised solely of an anonymous riddle. You can see it below and figure out for yourself how this individual decided to declare his love.
Although entertaining, all these declarations of love that never amount to anything aren’t the most heartwarming. For that, let’s turn to our next featured collection: the Orceneth Fisher Papers. These papers include letters between Orceneth Asbury Fisher and Mary Simons (whom he calls “Mollie”) soon after their engagement when Fisher is stuck in Lavaca with a broken leg.
In a sweet pair of letters from 1861, Mollie and Fisher expressed their love and sadness at their separation. After receiving several letters from him, Mollie wrote, “you don’t know how happy it made me feel to get such dear letters from you. I generally read them all over every night after everyone has retired.” She explained that she wonders what he dreams of and if he dreams of her. His answer? Well, of course he does. Fisher replied, “I love even the dreams that show your face and tell me of your love.” He even went on to say, “The hardest trial of all, Mollie, has been the absence from you.” These letters certainly give off the loving air of two people who have newly discovered their love and anxiously anticipate every letter and conversation.
Lastly let’s look at the most well known couple in this trio, Bertha McKee and J. Frank Dobie. Both would eventually go on to become successful writers, although J. Frank Dobie would surpass his wife in fame, she had a key role in creating his legacy. However, at the ages of 26 and 28, this was all far in the future. What we see in a letter from Frank to Bertha just days before their wedding in 1916 is a love that is sure and constant, while excited for the future ahead. After discussing a meeting with an acquaintance and his progress in moving out of his Austin apartment, he writes, “but when I come, dear heart, tell me that you had rather hear love words than to read them. Tell me that.” Dobie adds a P.S. on the end of his letter asking for information so that he can pick up the wedding flowers on his way through Houston, but of course you can’t end a love letter like that.
So let me leave you with the words of J. Frank Dobie to his dearest Bertha: “I send home more love; I can send all that words will carry and then still have vast mountains and oceans of it for you my betrothed, you my bride, you my wife.”