Sunday, September 29, 2013

Samson or Sampson? What's in a name...

As the days (okay, still months...) tick down towards publication of Revolutionary (January, folks!) all the final details are getting extra attention.  Many of these points are trivial enough not to deserve expansive description, but one task came across my plate this week that is worth getting into.

Namely (pun!), the question of how to spell Deborah's maiden name.  In my novel, I chose to spell it Samson.  Most sources list it as Sampson.  Thus, it might be easy to assume that I made a mistake in my spelling, but really it is a deliberate choice.

I find it fascinating that no signature of Deborah's exists prior to the war -- there is nowhere a place where she penned her own name (Samson or Sampson).  We have, of course, her signature as Robert Shurtliff (which is variously spelled Shurtlieff and Shurtleff -- there are both variant spellings as well as hard to read penmanship).  We have her signature as Deborah Gannett.  But no indication of how she spelled her maiden name.

After the war, there is no question that others spelled it Sampson and did so prominently.  Here, for instance, is the frontispiece of the "memoir" written by Herman Mann (with whom she collaborated closely) Mann Text that has her named spelled "Sampson."

But before the war, Baptist records (Deborah converted, or was "received" as a Baptist in 1780) mark her as "Samson" and then, two years later, when she was excommunicated, list her as "Sampson."  Even further back, all family records indicate that her father and her father's ancestors spelled it "Samson."  (I am indebted, as with many facts about Deborah, to Alfred Young.)   It was for this reason -- the clear family and historical precedent -- that I chose to spell her name "Samson."

My selection aside, the point I wanted to make here is one about the historical period (and history in general).  First, there is the variation in spelling (and my study of letters and journals of Revolutionary War soldiers bears this out) -- as long as it sounded right, the spelling didn't seem to matter much.  Second, there's the lack of documentation and "official" status to identity.  Deborah was Samson or Sampson; she was Robert Shurtliff or Shurleff or Shurtlieff.  No licenses, no passports, no papers.  Just say-so.  Just here-I-am.  And third, the idea that one's material self disappears.  That she lived in a time when she would right her own name so infrequently and on substance so ephemeral that it doesn't remain, except when others wrote it.

Identity and how we forge our own expressions of ourselves lies at the core of Revolutionary.  This minor (what does spelling matter?) factor is just one more way to consider how different the presentation and recording of self was back in the 1780s.

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