Find Your Passion: WWI Romance Helps Student Bring History to Life
By Cara Cramer
Mae and Lige were a young couple from Missouri going through the everyday ups and downs of any relationship. Now, 90 years later, their old-fashioned courtship has been saved in their collection of letters, brought to life by University of Alabama honors student Daniel Bush.
Bush, a senior majoring in math and history, first heard about the letters from Dr. Andrew Huebner, UA assistant professor of history. Bush and Huebner hope to catalog all the letters and make them available for public view.
Huebner says the letters bear a close resemblance to what couples today discuss. “Their relationship is strikingly similar to those now. However, instead of texting, phone calls or e-mail, they only have letters, which might take months to deliver,” Huebner says.
Lige, a new draftee from Chaonia, Mo., began writing Mae, a friend he had met while still at home. Throughout their three-year correspondence from 1917 to 1919, their relationship grew from friendship to romantic relationship and eventually, into marriage.
“In the early letters of 1917, Mae is a high school senior and Lige has just enlisted in the Army. They then get engaged and later married. Lige completes training and is sent to Europe in late 1918,” Bush says.
Although Mae and Lige Dees’ dialogue is similar to couples today, the cultural atmosphere of the time is strikingly different. “Socially, since teaching was an acceptable job for women, it did not require college,” Bush says. “Mae graduated high school in May 1918 and began teaching the following August. Also, she is submissive to Lige for the most part, asking why he wants her to do certain things but still agreeing to do so.”
Another concern that Lige has for Mae is her health. At the time, the flu was a widespread pandemic, and Lige constantly urges Mae to avoid getting sick. Lige also warns Mae not to go swimming in the lake because he fears she will drown.
“Lige opens every letter essentially the same way, with some form of ‘Dear little wife, I will drop you a few lines as it has been a few days since I last wrote. As far as slang or vocabulary goes, French people are ‘frogs,’ men who didn’t go to war are ‘slackers’ and a camera is a ‘Kodak’ to give a few examples,” Bush says.
“I discovered in the final few letters that Lige did in fact spend time in trenches on the front lines and also scored as an expert marksman,” Bush says.
The project features three key steps. First, all of the letters must be scanned into a computer. Then the letters must all be cataloged and coded with key words. The final step is to publicize the letters on a Web site.
“There are 146 letters in total, in a fairly even split between Mae and Lige. The majority are in good condition, torn in some cases but mostly complete and legible,” Bush says.
Bush, a Panama City, Fla., native, is in the Computer-Based Honors program. The program allows students to participate in a long research project, working closely with a professor. He began his project in January and will finish in December. Working about eight hours a week on the project, he has a seminar class with other research students and also meets with Huebner individually.
His interest in the project sparked after reading the research proposal from Huebner. After interviewing with Huebner, Bush liked the real-life approach to learning about history. He says he enjoys reading every letter before scanning them.
“I found this project to be interesting since I have always had an interest in history, particularly military history, and this project provided an opportunity to gain an inside look at World War I and its effects on the average soldier and his family,” Bush says.
Huebner hopes the research will help people better understand dating rituals, military life and culture and people’s employment during the time. Huebner hopes to write a book featuring Mae and Lige in the future. Huebner focuses his work on 20th century American culture.
Huebner has enjoyed getting to know Daniel throughout this process. “I couldn’t have asked for a better student to work with. He is extremely organized which is very necessary to catalog the amount of letters we have,” Huebner said.
After graduation, Bush hopes to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics from UA.
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Cara Cramer is a senior at The University of Alabama with a major in public relations and minors in political science and communication studies. She is from Dothan.
This story is part of the Find Your Passion series. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.