By Nicole O’Connell
In this column, Nicole deciphers Victorian cursive and explores old class diaries to see what students were up to in the early days of Worcester State. “Much and Nothing” refers one diarist’s account of a day’s happenings in 1877, but perhaps the sentiment applies more aptly to a multitude of entries.
The class diaries are part of the Apprenticeship Materials in the WSU Archives.
The March entries of 1877 would perhaps more aptly be described as “Quotes and Weather” than “Much and Nothing.” As the vernal equinox approaches, the students long for spring and make it resoundingly clear in their writing, both by using their own words and the words of well-known authors.
Quoting in the diaries was a common practice among the students, but the reasoning behind it is unclear. Did a young woman inscribe a Tennyson poem into the pages because the words evoked such visceral sentiments within her that she had to do something about it and get those stanzas down on paper? Or did she simply desire to fill up the blank space with something, anything, and be done with her task of recording something for that day?
Though Tennyson’s words appear three times in March of 1877, he is not alone among the celebrated writers appearing in the entries. Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, Whittier, and Wordsworth are quoted from this month as well. The quotes, especially the ones from the transcendentalists of the bunch, often touch upon themes of nature. If the Normal School students were reading largely from these authors, it starts to become clear why their descriptions of nature are often so eloquently written into the entries.
Sometimes the students fill the whole page with another’s words, sometimes they use the space only for their own words, and sometimes they utilize a mixture of both. The entries below consist mainly of the students’ words, with occasional interspersions of other authors.
On March 9 it was written:
Rain and wind in about equal proportions, have constituted the programme of today.
The rain came down and the wind blew up – judging from the appearance of a certain umbrella. Longfellow would doubtless say of it – “The day is cold, and dark, and dreary, it rains and the wind is never weary.”
Longfellow’s “dark, and dreary” words must have been much appreciated by the Normal School students for they employ them twice more throughout the March 1877 entries.
On March 15:
All this week has been stormy, and for three mornings, everything has been beautifully decorated with snow.
Last night the snow fell quietly, and the first intimation we had of it, – for the clouds had risen in the evening – was the scraping of shovels on the sidewalk. We saw the sun, hidden since Monday, this morning, this is such a day, as Whittier wrote about in these words;
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below –
A universe of sky and snow!
The next day, the 16th,
Another day of sunshine and beauty overhead, and mud and slush under-foot, but accompanied by an atmosphere clear and bracing and sufficiently cool to keep one from murmuring at the bad walking, poor sleighing and worse wheeling.
Such days as yesterday and today are glorious ones for developing a love for the beautiful, and for making ourselves, “greater than he that taketh a city”, but – they are bad for rheumatics.
And on March 21:
This has been another of the “dark and dreary days.” It seems as Spring as – probable sun-light and mist strive for the mastery; but to-day mist was victorious.
In the morning there was a drizzling rain, enough, when united with the melting snow to make the walking disagreeable and even dangerous where it masked the snow from icy patches. At noon the sun-light had not succeeded in piercing the fog.
In the afternoon the fog was so dense that objects at only a short distance were invisible or dimly outlined.
Within these entries we see four different writers. It can be easy to group them into one collective – students of the Worcester Normal School, each expressing their opinions on the evermore-spring-like weather – but if we look close, we can see that in each entry, there shines glimmers of the personalities of these individuals.
The March 9 author gifts us with a quip about a certain umbrella. In the next, we see the writer’s appreciation for the beauty of nature. March 16’s entry shows a student who was concerned about transportation during these difficult conditions. And in the last entry, the author has presented an exquisite description of a celestial battle between the sunlight and fog.
On first glance the weather does not appear to be the most insightful aspect of these entries, but much can be learned from how the students wrote about conditions outside the classroom.