Making Home, Writing Home: Letters, Diaries, and Self-Fashioning

Angela Duffett

In the summer of 1853, a 17 year old boy left St. John’s, Newfoundland on a mercantile ship owned by his father. Bound for Ireland and the seminary, he kept a journal chronicling the passage. It is unclear who Richard Howley intended as the audience for his writing, but he frequently addressed the reader as “you,” as in this passage acknowledging the voyage’s monotony: “You may perhaps expect more variety in this Journal especially as it is written in a situation so new to me, but it appears to me that there is a great sameness in a sea voyage… I just write everything as it happens and this is a true and exact account of my passage.”[1]

“A true and exact account” indeed. Letters and diaries present unique challenges for historians. Self-censorship, self-aggrandizement, omissions, and exaggerations pepper their pages. A number of studies have focussed on the act of letter and diary writing and the art of interpreting these sources.[2] Letters and diaries provide tantalizing glimpses into how people lived their lives, bringing details and the odd secret to the fore. But researchers know that these sources more often focus on the quotidian: what the weather was like, what a person had for dinner, when the lilacs bloomed. As a researcher turns the pages, absorbing ordinary detail after ordinary detail, a picture moves into focus: for historians concerned with place and space, letters and journals provide crucial depictions of how places looked, sounded and smelled, and of how individuals interacted with and moved through the landscape.

Letters and diaries can reveal the emotional work emigrants engaged in in order to make sense of their surroundings. Their writing is often preoccupied with place: the place they leave, and the place they arrive in. On one lonely night in 1851, St. John’s banker Edward Morris lamented that in twenty years he still had not established a strong circle of friends in Newfoundland: “After that vast space in the life of man there is not more than two families into whose house I could go as a friend… It is the nature of colonial life. One parts with the circle of which he was a link when he emigrates and when he settles in a new country he cannot expect to be otherwise than a stone taken from a forest and planted in the midst of a newly formed garden.”[3] On a stormy Shrove Tuesday, Morris’s bachelor status was also beginning to grate on him: “No pancakes for a solitaire,” he despaired. “Beginning to think on the misery of being an old bachelor. Chimney smoking as if to remind me that the scolding wife was absent. Sad sad pancake night.”[4]

The Town and Harbour of St. John's, 1831 (Artist unknown) Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1989-520-6

The Town and Harbour of St. John’s, 1831 (Artist unknown)
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1989-520-6

Two years later he would marry Catherine Howley (aunt of the aforementioned Richard) and enter quite happily into her family’s large and extended social circle. Morris’s diary may not contain any salacious tidbits, but it does record, in painstaking detail, the names of everyone he and Catherine met on their daily walk, where they met them, who they entertained, and who entertained them. As years go by, the faces around their table change, supporting characters enter and exit their lives, and the walks shift in route and duration. Why did Edward Morris record these comings and goings? By determining which elements of life merited inclusion on the page (whether in a diary, chosen to record events for one’s own memories, or in a letter written with a view to what the recipient should or would like to hear about) people gave meaning and definition to their lives, chose what was important, and engaged in place-making. They created a world in their written accounts, and researchers who pry into those accounts generations later find themselves caught up in the writer’s triumphs and travails, eager observers of their affairs.[5]

As for young Richard Howley, caught between places, the crossing may have been a liminal experience but the world of his written account most often reflected shipboard boredom. He passed the time learning the names of knots, and writing detailed descriptions of birds and whales. He provides rather uncharitable descriptions of his fellow passengers, particularly the ship’s cook, who had previously plied his trade on sealing vessels off Newfoundland’s northeast coast. “Nowhere else could he acquire such perfection in the culinary art” noted Howley drily.[6] The days may have been monotonous, but Howley was keenly aware that he was leaving a familiar life for a place about which he had heard much but never seen, and when not terse and bratty, his writing reflects his suspension between the place he had left and the place he was bound for. On the first sight of land at Ireland, Howley was ecstatic: “On me it had the same effect as if I had inhaled laughing gass… There was I, who was never before 10 miles from St. John’s, after crossing the great Atlantic and now looking on the land of Saints, of poets, of patriots, it appeared to me like a dream.” Arriving in Ireland was, for Howley, a moment of transition and departure: “I could hardly for the moment satisfy myself of my own identity, but the reality soon forced itself on me and, strange as it seemed I was obliged to allow that I was myself and was awake.”[7]

Howley’s diary, like many shipboard diaries, concludes abruptly upon arrival. What happens to this bright and sometimes snarky boy? Later records reveal some elements of Howley’s adult life. By the 1880s he was permanently back in North America, shuffling between a number of parishes in Newfoundland and the United States. An undated letter between his brothers Tom and James hints at his having a drinking problem. They talk about other siblings who have shut Richard out, and Tom writes “I do not believe in treating him harshly, what’s the use of it, he can’t be accountable… the end of it will be he will be off again some day to Canada or the States or so on. It is a sad business.”[8] Richard died in New York State in 1912. The Richard Howley in the journal comes off as endearing albeit somewhat haughty, an eager observer of the world around him, writing with wonder about porpoises, whales, and his first glimpse of Ireland. For young Richard Howley, the transatlantic crossing from St. John’s to Ireland was a threshold – he left St. John’s a boy, to train for the priesthood in his father’s homeland. For three and a half weeks he recorded his observations. Who was he between those weeks on the ship and the letters that passed between his brothers many years later?

And here is where letters and diaries are at their most frustrating. The rest of the story – the family left in Newfoundland (many of whom were prolific diarists themselves), the education, praise, and turmoil that awaited him – can be fleetingly sketched. But when the ship docks, he puts his pen aside. The curtain goes down and the lights dim. The performers are no longer visible, and we are left to ponder the brief performance their words recreate. Letters and diaries are sites of self-fashioning and place-making, but for all that they reveal, there is much that remains unsaid. We can only speculate on the person and the place that existed beyond the page margins.


Angela Duffett is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University where she is completing a dissertation on place and landscape in 19th century St. John’s, Newfoundland. Find her on Twitter @AngelaDuffett.

 [1] Richard Howley diary August 5, 1853. Memorial University of Newfoundland Archives, collection 262, file 7.01.001.

[2]For letter writing in a transatlantic context, see for example, Eve Tavor Bannet, Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Konstantine Dierks, In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Elizabeth Jane Errington, Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities: Migration to Upper Canada in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007); David A. Gerber, Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Sarah M.S. Pearsall, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Ian K. Steele, The English Atlantic 1645-1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[3] Edward Morris Diaries and Journals, March 23, 1851. Maritime History Archive (MHA), Memorial University of Newfoundland, Reels 1-3-3-(1-3).

[4] Edward Morris diary, March 4, 1851. MHA Reels 1-3-3-(1-3).

[5] Greg Dening makes a similar point in his introduction to the edited collection Through A Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, eds. Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel and Frederika J. Teute (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997): 1-6.

[6] Richard Howley diary, August 6, 1853, MUN, Coll 262, file 7.01.001.

[7] Richard Howley diary, August 12, 1853. MUN, Coll 262, file 7.01.001.

[8] Tom Howley to James Howley, n.d. MUN Coll 262, file 7.01.007.

Featured Image: Entrance of the Harbour of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1842. From Richard H. Bonnycastle, Newfoundland, in 1842 (London: Henry Colburn, 1842). British Library via Wikimedia Commons.

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