Guest Blog: Discoveries in the NYPL
February 5, 2018
Today I am honored to post a guest blog from HarperCollins' Assistant Editor Mabel Hsu, who helped hone the manuscript with her perceptive comments and questions. Early on in the sprint to research Peggy Schuyler's life, Mabel also braved the massive collection of Philip Schuyler's papers in the New York Public Library to retrieve letters I had seen referenced in biographies on Schuyler and Hamilton. Working through dozens of microfilm reels, Mabel discovered some unexpected gems, which she shares below. The research produced one of the novel's most endearing players. It's primary documents that make biographical fiction like Hamilton and Peggy! so palpable and emotionally authentic.
The NYPL has now digitized the collection. After reading Mabel's post you may want to take a look yourself: http://archives.nypl.org/mss/2701
In this modern age of emails and text messages, I too am susceptible to articles that end with a tl;dr sentence summation, of bullet pointed memos, of The New York Times sending out a daily morning brief. The masses and I are busy, so please, hit us with your headline.
But as a children’s book editor, I often tell my authors the opposite: Be careful of overexplaining; always trust your readers. The writer has a lot of roles, but one of the most important ones is trusting the reader to pick up on subtext. After all, what joy is there for a reader who has been told something? The joy is in connecting the dots, in discovering what message someone has left for you.
And in what form is there more intimate a relationship between writer and reader than in a handwritten letter? Every ink-dabbed streak across the paper, a moment of passion? A long flourish in a signature, a hope to be remembered? The clues in our handwriting, in what we can and cannot say due to current social conventions—they tell a greater and much more interesting story than a quick headline to me.
It was while pouring over endless rolls of microfilm at the New York Public Library, searching through handwritten letters that date back to 18th century, that I found myself enamored by this dying tradition of communication. I had been asked by Laura Elliott, author of the upcoming Hamilton and Peggy!,to look through the Philip Schuyler collection for letters to aid in her extensive research for the novel.
And here—among quill scratches, ink blots, and wax seals—history came alive.
In these notes, I found anger, weariness, warnings, pleas, and loving reminders to take care and stay safe. I had previously been swept up in the Hamilton musical craze, and came to see Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and the Schuyler family, as amazing key players in the history of the American Revolution. But now, I recognized husband and wife, parent and child, friends, colleagues—people whose quirks and characteristics were becoming familiar to me.
Like Richard Varick, a little known former Mayor of New York City who’s perhaps best known as being a “forgotten founding father.” He was an aid to generals Philip Schuyler and Benedict Arnold, and wrote hundreds of letters to Philip, of which I am thankful were preserved and gifted to the library. Look at the flourish in signature here:
In Richard’s letters to Schuyler, sometimes sent more than once in a day, his kind personality shone through as he repeatedly inquired after Philip’s health and the well-being of his family. Varick knew the frustrations Philip felt with the goings of the war, and he gave his support where he could. He never said directly, “Philip, I love you and your family like my own.” But I know it. And I feel certain Philip knew it. Happily, it was through the discovery of these countless letters and the man that sprung from them that Laura made him a more prominent character in her book. I am glad for it—for Varick should never be forgotten. And looking at his signature, I don’t think he would’ve wanted to either.
Headlines and bullet points are helpful. But the people behind the words? So much more fun.