Document 8:

Author: James Harris Fairchild

Recipient: Mary Fletcher Kellogg

Date:  28 Feb 1839

Location: Oberlin College Archives, James H. Fairchild Papers. Series III Courtship Correspondence,

1771-1926, RG 2/003.

Document Type: Transcript (1939) Autograph Letter, Signed by Author.


This letter from James to Mary is from the winter of 1839, when Mary was living in Cincinnati with her family and preparing to head South in the following summer. At this time, Mary and James had been corresponding for almost a year and had been engaged since July. Despite their long engagement, it is clear that Mary still didn’t feel entirely comfortable in her correspondence with James. She seems to be constantly unsure of his feelings, and in the last letter he had received from her, she wrote that she “had nothing of interest” to talk about, though she was communicating details of her daily life. James, in the following excerpt from his reply (dated 28 February 1839), displays the sarcasm that seems to be one of his hallmarks. Though Mary seems uncertain of James’ continued affection and interest in her doings, he clearly has no such fears.


Oberlin, February 28”, Thursday<.>

My Dear Mary,

Your letter which from your own confession communicated “nothing of interest” reached me on Monday, 2 weeks after date. I must acknowledge that I was so weak as to forget, after I had finished the first sentence, there was nothing to interest me. It was certainly very childish and absurd in me to be so interested in the intelligence you received from your brother and cousin.1 It was undoubtedly something respecting which I should never have cherished a wish or thought. Could it possibly make any difference with me whether you ever heard from them or from your father again?2 That you and your dear mother, amid all your anxiety could still be happy and exercise confidence in the same Father’s3 hand that has led and sustained you hitherto– it was nothing (?) [sic] to me.

Your school4 too– how could you presume so far as to mention that? Did you suppose I should ever think of your cares and labor with a feeling which approaches to interest or anxiety? Lest you should now regret that you spoke of it, I will here grant, un-asked, my forgiveness for the presumption. Other little items that you mention, your anticipated return to Oberlin in the spring5 etc., they must all be classed under the “nothing interesting”. It is very strange you did not think fit to apologise for writing at all when, besides those incidents that I have mentioned, I could possibly infer from the tenor of the letter that Mary is still useful and happy and good, all nothing, nothing. I would not be severe in my criticisms<,> but you will doubtless pardon it to my sense of justice. The remarks are so applicable that you must certainly concur in them. Such uninteresting letters it is not my fate to receive every day.

But there is one thing I fear, shall I tell it? You may decide upon the merits of my letter by the same standard by which you judged your own. If yours was “uninteresting” mine will be——it will want a name. You certainly did not intend to place me in so serious a dilemma. You will ask me how I dare write under these circumstances. I have been much encouraged by this reflection, that those who venture to write “nothing of interest” must expect “nothing of interest” in return, not even the interest on the loan they gave. Here the matter must rest. 6[…]

Transcribed by Rebecca Debus.

1At the time of this letter, Mary’s brother Augustus and her cousin Martha had been traveling South to view the family’s likely new home (Oberlin College Archives, James H. Fairchild Papers. Series III Courtship Correspondence, 1771-1926, RG 2/003).

2Mary’s father was also traveling at this time; he had been in the eastern United States, and her family did not hear from him for several months because he did not have their address. James would have been especially interested to hear if Mary’s father had sent word to them, because Mary was refraining from returning to Oberlin until she had word from him (Oberlin College Archives, James H. Fairchild Papers. Series III Courtship Correspondence, 1771-1926, RG 2/003).

3James is referring to God here, not Mary’s corporeal father.

4 At the time Mary was teaching at a young boys’ school in Cincinnati where her family was temporarily residing (Oberlin College Archives, James H. Fairchild Papers. Series III Courtship Correspondence, 1771-1926, RG 2/003).

5 Mary did not return to Oberlin in the spring, as her father wished her to remain at home. At several points during her years apart from James, she planned to return to Oberlin to complete her studies before they married (married students were not permitted at this time), but she never did so (Oberlin College Archives, James H. Fairchild Papers. Series III Courtship Correspondence, 1771-1926, RG 2/003).

6 It must be noted that, though Mary certainly exhibited a great deal of diffidence and uncertainty in her correspondence with James, she was not above telling him when he displeased her. After she received this letter she wrote to him saying:

Your criticisms upon my last letter almost vexed me. I did not consider them “so applicable” as you anticipated. I will venture to send this without an excuse, though. I will say no more. Now, I suppose you will think you have succeeded. You have accomplished what you wished, to banish all apologies, etc. etc., but they were really just and sincere……. [sic]

Tea is ready now and I must close.

Yours as ever, MARY