Letters Home

How a mysterious box in the archives led to surprising connections and a serendipitous thesis

Christy Carley, News Editor

The story of Megan Gleason’s senior thesis began in a French class called “Épistolaires” or epistolaries — the study of literature in the form of a series of letters. Focused on the late eighteenth century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuse by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the class examined how a letter can function as a literary form and, in particular, how the theme of physical distance between characters plays into a novel.

After finishing with Les Liaisons, students made their way to the archives to examine historical letters through a literary lens. Presented with various options of letter collections to analyze, Gleason was drawn to a wooden box labeled “Osgood Letters to Wife.” According to Gleason, no one had opened it. At least not recently.  

“There’s no record of it,” Gleason said. “Whoever took it in didn’t write in that they had it anywhere. So they just found it in the archives. It was very mysterious.”

The first surprise, upon opening the box, was that the letters were from France. Some were even written in French. The second was that the letters were addressed to Bainbridge Island, Gleason’s home town west of the Cascades.

The box contained about sixty letters, most in English, but a few in French. Sent between 1917 and 1918, the letters detail Robert Osgood’s experience while stationed in France during World War I. Prior to leaving for the war, Osgood worked as a teacher and Protestant minister on Bainbridge. Though not officially ordained, his wife, Anna, to whom the letters are addressed, often delivered sermons in his absence. After the war Osgood made his way back to the states and taught French and Spanish at Whitman for a period of time in the 1930s before returning to Bainbridge. Gleason reckons this is why the archives have his letters.

Gleason’s thesis has two parts. The first examines how the letters functioned to maintain the relationship between Robert and Anna Osgood, while the second explores how Osgood portrayed the war.

A graduate of the Chicago Theological Seminary, Osgood’s thesis focused on marriage; Gleason has drawn on it for help understanding the role that letters played in the Osgoods’ relationship.

She says one line of the thesis, in particular, has influenced her study: “The love of husband and wife broadens and deepens with the increasing community of their experience.” Gleason said the thesis has inspired her to think about how Osgood creates a shared experience — and a shared community — through his letters.

While stationed in France, Osgood worked at an organization called Les Foyers du Soldat (The Soldier’s Living Room) that was eventually partnered with the American YMCA. According to Gleason the organization provided canteens for American and French soldiers that also functioned as cultural centers. Soldiers could visit to play sports, write letters or socialize.

Osgood worked at a center for French soldiers, affording him the opportunity to build a network of friends across national borders. He went on bike rides through the countryside, visited friends at their homes and endeavored to introduce Anna to his new companions. Not only did Osgood write his own letters to Anna, but he also forwarded letters he received from French soldiers so that Anna could practice French and “meet” some of his friends.

“There’s this really interesting network of community that he’s trying to build,” said Gleason. “That’s [one] thing I’ve been talking about in my thesis — how he’s sustaining this relationship [with] his wife and introducing her to this broader group of people through literally sending her their letters.”

One of such people was a professional cyclist who had completed the Tour de France five times. While Gleason’s thesis was focused on a literary analysis of the letters, she said she found the historical aspects of the research exciting.

“I didn’t realize how much I loved digging up information,” she said. “I think I scared my advisor a little bit … I had a lot of fun just with that part.”

Beyond the letters, Gleason gathered background information from church records and Ancestry.com, which she said had a surprising number of public records available. Even with this background though, piecing together the letters often remained a challenge.

The collection only includes letters received by Anna, not those she wrote back to her husband. Slow and flawed mail service during the war also presented difficulties. Gleason said that sometimes letters would arrive in bundles and if letters from Anna had been delayed, Osgood would be writing “into the void.”

“How do you maintain a conversation if one side is delayed by the post office?” she wondered.

On that front, Gleason said Osgood’s clarity attention to detail was helpful. He often carefully described which of her letters he was responding to.  

For all their detail, though, the letters said little about the more brutal aspects of the war, focusing instead on Osgood’s jaunts through the French countryside, experience riding in an airplane and descriptions of friends.

The omission of war-related information became problematic as the year went on. Responding to Osgood’s laments at how much he missed her, Anna suggested she come to France and volunteer — an idea that Osgood quickly countered. After introducing Anna to a number of his friends, Gleason said, Osgood is eventually “forced to admit that people are dying.” Their “community of experience,” as Osgood described it, necessarily included those more painful experiences as well.

The Osgoods never had children, and Gleason reckons, at present, she may know more about the couple’s lives than anyone else, not to mention having her own intimate knowledge of their shared hometown. Given their lack of descendants, Gleason is thankful for the opportunity to connect with them in her own way.

“Every time I look at how much was saved … I’m just so thankful that that box exists,” said Gleason. “It makes me think of how many people have letters that they think no one would want to study, but could be really informative and helpful to someone like me.”