During September and October I worked under PASP archivist Garrett Bruner preparing the correspondence between Emmett Bennett, Jr. and Alice Kober for online publication. The Bennett-Kober correspondence is now online for open access at Texas Scholarworks.
This correspondence is part of the E.L. Bennett Jr. Papers. I followed the guidelines set by PASP on processing all digital material. With the scanning already completed, my job was to go through each item, letter by letter, to create metadata for Texas ScholarWorks based on their Dublin Core schema. Garrett provided the schema of this sheet and I added the necessary entries.
The Story Told
The tale that emerges is the evolving collaboration between Kober and Bennett on the decipherment of Linear B. Each enters the arena armed with a different dataset. Kober was assisting Sir John Linton Myres on the publication of the Linear B tablets recovered by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos. Bennett, who played a comparable role for Carl Blegen, tackled the palace archives excavated at Pylos. The collaboration between Kober and Bennett moves from sharing and correcting their transcriptions of various tablets each has access to, to meeting in person to bring together and standardize classification references to Linear B words. The latter picks up towards the end of 1948, after Myres and Blegen agreed to allow mutual access of their materials, and continues through Kober’s declining health and eventual death in May of 1950.
The Bennett-Kober letters are of a largely technical nature, as one would expect with this kind of work. Shop-talk about classification systems, edits, and proposals for edits orbit around a score of Linear B transcriptions. This is an invaluable collection for those interested in history of scholarship and the mechanics of Linear B’s decipherment. There are two crucial letters for understanding this collection:
1. The first letter in the series, AKtoELB19450114, in which Kober explains her punch-card system.
2. AKtoELB19481122, in which Kober briefly explains both her classification system and statistical methodology.
Reading those first will give the reader a greater sense of the rest of their letters. Another note of warning is that we have more letters penned by Kober than Bennett; we can only guess at what Bennett mentioned in missing letters from Kober’s responses.
In all, however, it is easy enough for a non-specialist such as myself to follow along with the unfolding tale of scholarly cooperation and discovery. For instance, in letters before June 1948, Kober wavers on whether or not the Pylos script is in fact Linear B. But following “the rules of evidence” where they lead, she becomes convinced that the Pylos tablets write the same language as those from Knossos.
The Dramatis Personae
In addition, as per usual, the letters act as windows to their writers, and aspects of their characters flash through. Both begin addressing each other with the formal “Dear Mr. Bennett” and “Dear Miss Kober.” In June 1948, however, Kober says she is finally getting tired of using “Mr. Bennett.” We do not have Bennett’s response to her, but thereafter her letters are addressed “Dear Bennett.” Bennett himself maintains the formal “Dear Miss Kober” throughout. In ELBtoAK19480604, Bennett expresses the traditional academic embarrassment with commerce when he shows off a custom-made set of Linear B stamps in order to “sell…or rather, in keeping with academic dignity, and my own inclination, to show you something I got for myself, and which you might like for yourself.”
Academic exasperations we know today were equally present then. In AKtoELB19490212, Kober expresses irritation at how out of date her transcriptions of the Knossos Tablets, which she was proud of two years before, have become, and the problems that has caused. In AKtoELB19490216 she states, in the context of sharing an office with four other teachers, “[a] city college is no place for scholarly research, I’ve found to my cost.”
Furthermore, Kober has a rueful humor to her. In AKtoELB19451230, after a 3-page litany of questions re: her transcriptions of the Pylos tablets, she writes “I could keep this up all night, but I’ll spare you.” In an earlier letter, dated January 14 of the same year, she deadpans “It’s harder to get articles published in Europe during the war than it was to get military secrets…”
The Mystery Letters
This project has been a good review and expansion of skills I picked up at a previous archiving position. It also involved detective skills I’ve enjoyed putting to use. There were for instance two misdated letters at the end of the collection; one from Kober to Bennett dated December 5, 1950, and another from Bennett to Kober, undated save assignation to 1950.
In the case of the former, the date was obviously incorrect, for Kober died in May of that year. The problem sprang from the fact that (1) Kober simply dated the postcard as “Tuesday,” and (2) the post office stamp indicating the date of receipt was incomplete, leaving out the year. The post office worker must have noticed this and assumed he didn’t stamp hard enough, for there is a second stamp over the first with exactly the same problem, leaving a palimpsest. Examining it up close, I found that there is a faint “1” between the “DEC” and the “5.” This indicates Kober’s local post office in Brooklyn received her postcard on December 15th. I checked the calendars for the years of the Kober-Bennett correspondence, and only in one of them – 1948 – did December 15th fall on a Wednesday, the day after which Kober dates her postcard. Furthermore, the text of the card squarely places it in this year, for it was in the winter of 1948 and 1949 that Kober and Bennett travelled back and forth between New York and New Haven to examine each other’s material, and this postcard contains Kober’s instructions to Bennett for using the subway to get from Penn Station to her office at Brooklyn College. I appropriately renamed it AKtoELB19481214, and you can find it in the collection under that title.
Regarding our other mystery letter without a date, internal clues hint at the time of its writing. In this letter (now titled ELBtoAK19490214), Bennett mentions that his three children have come down with illness, and that he plans to come down to New York “Thursday or Saturday of next week, the 24th or 26th.” This gave some context for me to go off from. Kober, in her February 16, 1949 letter, expresses her hope that Bennett’s children recover. Also, in February of 1949 the 24th and 26th of the month fell on a Thursday and a Saturday, respectively. This gives us the terminus ante quem. To further narrow down the date, in her February 12th letter Kober took Bennett to task for a bad numbering method, which he leads off his mystery date letter with a response to. There’s thus a four-day period in which Bennett could have written this letter. He likely wrote it Monday the 14th or Tuesday the 15th, given the usual time between their correspondence.
The Briefest Conclusion
In toto, this project has been an excellent experience. I am proud to have contributed to the open access publication of this correspondence. It provides a crucial glimpse into the scholarly ground-pounding required to advance Linear B to the point it could be deciphered.
Updated on November 22, 2017 by Garrett R. Bruner. firstname.lastname@example.org