Jun 30, 2009

The Wonders of Understatement

Totally off-topic, but I've been devouring David Blight's Yale course on the Civil War and Reconstruction (downloadable here for free), and I heard him read from Jourdon Anderson's famous letter of 1865 today. Jourdon was a former Tennessee slave who was about a year into a newly free life in Ohio when his old master, Col. P.H. Anderson, wrote to him to ask him to return to work. His response is devastating--fascinating, wickedly ironic, stunning, ultimately moving. Jourdon begins with a polite ambivalence:
I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.

He then hones in on his main argument, starting by describing the simple but considerable virtues of his newly free life in Ohio:
I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday- School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, "The colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master.

That's a brilliant rope-a-dope, given his next sentence:
Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

Jourdon's final twist of the knife is too good to describe--read it yourself, if you haven't already. It's a masterful piece of writing, and it's irresistible to imagine the state of mind of its writer as he wrote it--he must have laughed himself silly, cried with horror, and burned with quiet fury. Apart from the speeches and letters of Lincoln himself, I can think of few more devastating uses of matter-of-fact understatement and sweetly worded harsh truths than this letter.

It's all here.

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