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Local History Comes Alive in “Letters to the Editor”

Residents of Lexington and Rockbridge County, will undoubtedly turn first to the index to see if they recognize the names of the letter writers in the new book The Lexington Letters: Two Centuries of Water Under the Bridge (Mariner Publishing, November 2011), which collects 200 years of letters to the editors of the local newspapers.

“I think that part of the dynamic of this book is that people will see letters from their fathers, grandmothers, neighbors and ancestors,” said Doug Cumming, editor of the book and associate professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University. “The history is alive and present, and the names of the letter writers are also the names in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery and the local phone book.”

• See below for audio of the letters read by the author

Cumming described the book as perfect for browsing. “You can pick it up, open it anywhere and read for one minute or 45 minutes,” he said. “It shows how in a particular place in America the local newspaper was a public forum where people expressed themselves, complained and generally interacted. I hope readers find it challenging and engaging and that it opens their eyes to some of the tensions and ironies in local history.”

Letters to the Editor is the culmination of research that started in the summer of 2010 with W&L students and community researchers reading 8,000 letters to the editor and transcribing 1,367 of the most interesting ones. “Matthew Paxton IV, publisher of the Lexington News-Gazette, was essential to the project,” said Cumming. “He allowed the researchers into the back rooms of the newspaper where many bound copies were stored.”

The criteria for selecting letters were suggested by Kimberly Jew, associate professor of theater at W&L, in preparation for turning some of the letters into a stage play, “Lexington’s Letters to the Editor,” which was performed at the Lime Kiln Theater in May 2011. The script is included at the end of the book.

However, fewer than 200 of those letters were used in the stage play. “The unused letters had been selected because they were interesting,” said Cumming, “and I didn’t think they should go to waste.”

Cumming said that he tried not to favor any particular segment of local life in selecting which letters to publish and decided to organize the letters into themes. “I wanted to follow a chronological arc generally in the book, and again within chapters,” he said. For example, “The Gathering Storm,” is about the ante-bellum Civil War period, “Remembrance and Commemoration” follows the Civil War, and then there are chapters on “Prohibition” and “World War II.” Other themes in the book include race, holidays, farming, fires, firecrackers, traffic, parking problems, tourism, and guns and hunting.

“These letters are direct communication, unmediated to a large extent by either editors or historians,” Cumming pointed out. “You can hear your neighbor from 150 years ago talk about things that are either familiar to you or are now alien because of history. Also, while some of these events can be found in local history books, other events have never been cited in any history book.”

One of Cumming’s favorite chapters concerned Stonewall Jackson Hospital. “I found it fascinating,” he said. “The chapter starts with a letter from Mary Nelson Pendleton, the daughter of the local Episcopal rector William Nelson Pendleton, and quotes the widow of Stonewall Jackson and her circumstances. The widow has this house and she can’t afford to keep it up, but can’t afford to give it away either. So she’s politely asking for donations to turn it into a hospital. The chapter ends with a letter from Washington and Lee English professor Suzanne Keen thanking the hospital for being there when she had her first child.”

Another favorite chapter is one describing a fire in 1915 on the corner of Nelson and Jefferson streets. “As the letters say, the fire destroyed a third of the block, but it could have been much worse than it was,” said Cumming. “It’s interesting to read the letters thanking the members of the volunteer fire department.”

Cumming also found and included in the chapter a photo of the fire taken by Matthew Paxton II, grandfather of the current publisher of the Lexington News-Gazette, who was a student at Washington and Lee at the time. Being from a journalism family, Paxton always kept his camera at the ready and so was available to take pictures of the fire.

Local residents were not the only writers of letters to the editor as the last chapter shows. For example, someone who passed through Lexington wrote to say they how they appreciated all the American flags flying in the streets when the business community first started paying for the flags.

Elaine Emerson wrote the following in 1991 from Turkey:

“…the place I would very much like to be at this moment—sipping a cold brew and floating a tube at Goshen. I look up from my laptop to the still Aegean, and think of another paradise, Rockbridge County. Goshen Pass is still as green as I once was. It is first picnics, first swimming lessons, first loves, and I want to go back.”

Five newspapers were included in the research, beginning with The Lexington Gazette, the primary newspaper of the 19th century dating back to 1804, but under different names. Then, in the 1880s, the Rockbridge County News was launched. The two newspapers merged in 1962 to become the News-Gazette. Other newspapers were the Ring-tum Phi at W&L and the VMI Cadet. Copies of the newspapers, either in bound volumes or on microfilm, are in W&L’s Special Collections in Leyburn Library, Preston Library at VMI, Rockbridge Regional Library and at the News-Gazette archives.

Both Cumming and Jew received Lenfest grants from Washington and Lee for the project.

The Lexington Letters will be available at local book stores Books & Co. and The Bookery.

Audio of letters read by Doug Cumming:

Response to a 1915 fire in Lexington

W&L professor emeritus Milton Colvin on free market enterprise in 1983

A Rockbridge County senior citizen writes in 1980

The Sunday movie show debates of 1942

W&L librarian Annie White on vandalized newspapers

Former W&L Professor Marshall Fishwick on the University’s namesakes

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