Bella Williams was sixteen when she critiqued Dickens’ novel for her brother James on Nov. 25, 1860. With their mother, Eleanor Williams, she had also read Dombey and Son, which she rated “next to Davy Copperfield in my estimation.” When Eleanor read Dickens’ story “The Haunted House,” she wrote in another letter: “Dickens always gives a surprise. It is not what would be expected from the title. [It] is quite interesting but not equal to his other stories that I have read. The caracters [sic] do not seem to live as they do in some others.” Bella also read Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, and Eleanor admired Jane Eyre. In contrast to Eleanor’s assessment of the characters in “The Haunted House,” she and her family come alive in `This State of Wonders’: The Letters of an Iowa Frontier Family (ed. John Kent Folmar, University of Iowa Press, 1986). The book gives the lie to the notion that all American settlers were cretins out to kill Indians and rape the land.
The patriarch was John Hugh Williams, born in Wales in 1805. He emigrated to Philadelphia at age seventeen, trained as a watchmaker and engraver, and married the boss’ daughter, Eleanor Anderson. They moved west to St. Clairsville, Ohio, near Wheeling, W.V. In 1847, Williams became a leader in founding the Church of New Jerusalem in Ohio. They were followers of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), as were Blake and Emerson (who called him “a colossal soul”). In 1855, the family, now with six children, moved west to the village of Homer in Webster County, Iowa. After the economic panic of 1857, William arranged for his son James to go to work as a watchmaker for a fellow Swedenborgian in Augusta, Ga. Most of the seventy-five letters collected in `This State of Wonders’ were exchanged by James and his family back in Iowa between 1858 and March 1861, on the brink of the Civil War. On Dec. 26, 1860, Bella’s husband George wrote to James, describing an expedition in a snow storm to gather firewood. It recalls Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”:
“There was a dead buroak [burr oak] up on the hill and John said that he would go and get it; it was burnt down and we loaded it on the sledge and started toward home. We went about ten rods [168 feet] when the off runner hit a little nole [knoll], and threw the wood to the near side and the runner b[r]oke down. We managed to fix it so we could ride home on it.”
The following date, Bella also wrote to James. Folmar uses a phrase from the final paragraph for the title of his collection:
“On the 23rd we had the quietest and heaviest fall of snow I ever witnessed even in this State of wonders and it continued calm until yesterday evening when the wind—which was coming out from the south east—rose and the snow began to `kelter’ and has continued to do so since.”
I’m uncertain whether “State of wonders” refers to Iowa or is a scriptural or Swedenborgian allusion. Nor does the editor explain “kelter” or why Bella puts the word in quotation marks. The OED gives four definitions, all nouns, none of which seem pertinent: “a coarse cloth used for outer garments,” “good condition, order; state of health or spirits” [variation of kilter, as in “out of kilter”]; “money, cash,” and “rubbish, nonsense.”
In his epilogue, Folmar fills in the very American coda. After Fort Sumter, James Williams, a native-born Northerner, enlisted in the Twenty-first Alabama Infantry Volunteers. He led his company at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and was cited for gallantry. By June 1863, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel. He commanded a small battery, Fort Powell, in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864 and was regimental commander during the final months of the war. He lived for the rest of his life in Mobile, Ala., and died in 1903. His brothers John, Jr. and Joseph, served in Company G of the First Iowa Cavalry. They died in 1933 and 1891, respectively.
[Dave Lull passes along the definition of “kelter” as an intransitive verb in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to move restlessly: undulate,” “chiefly Scottish.”]