by Megan M. Atkinson
One of my favorite formats in the archives are love letters. It is a little voyeuristic and the content was obviously personal to the authors, but these letters can often offer insights into past relationships, customs, current events of the time, and of course, romance. War time love letters offer glimpses of battles or of camp life. Language reflects etiquette and customs. Even though the letters’ initial intent was private, love letters come to archives and become part of creating a historical narrative of a person or time.
Tennessee Tech has many love letters, but the largest collection are of Charles Faulkner Bryan and Edith Inez Hillis from the 1930s. Many readers may know of Charles Faulkner Bryan as the namesake of the Bryan Fine Arts Building and the Bryan Symphony Orchestra. Others may have heard his compositions.
Charles was an American composer and musician and the director of Tennessee Technological University’s (then Tennessee Polytechnic Institute) Music Department. Edith taught in the public schools until her retirement from McMinnville in 1976. The letters represent their courtship before they were married in 1935 and after and include two boxes of materials with hundreds of letters!
When separated, the couple wrote back and forth regularly, sometimes more than once a day and occasionally just sending a telegram with a simple “I Love You.” They referred to each other with endearments such as darling, husband, dearest, precious, and even “Little Piggie,” as Charles lovingly called Edith in some letters or she signed in others. Letters closed with “always,” “believe me, I am yours,” “I love you, body and soul.”
The letters offer a glimpse into how much the couple’s life revolved around music, with letters often beginning with Edith telling Charles about listening to the radio or telling him how a song reminded her of him. Edith, on January 5, 1934, “When I was listening to the radio, I heard ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and again there was that dull ache in my heart.” He often started with his review of a show at the Ryman Auditorium or War Memorial.
Charles’s life was cut short at the age of 43 when he had a sudden heart-attack. As the archivist reading the letters, you have the hindsight and already know the end of the story. As the dates become more recent, you have been immersed in the romance and charmed by the sweetness of the relationship so you become pretty emotional because you know the tragic loss that is coming. This does not stop your emotional investment in finishing the letters, and the story, and learning the history of the couple.
The collection description can be found here: https://www.tntech.edu/library/pdf/RG42-CharlesFaulknerBryanPapers.pdf