A historian's treasures | May 18, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 18, 2012

A historian's treasures

George Knoles donated a wealth of papers to Stanford

In this age of glowing screens, George Knoles' boxes of correspondence feel like treasure chests. Letters are penned on blue Aerogrammes or typed on gossamer onionskin paper. The handwriting can be impossibly small.

Dip into a box, and you might find a letter from Knoles during World War II, stamped with "Passed By Naval Censor." Or a 1950s plea from one of Knoles' Stanford students for a better grade.

For years, there's an annual missive from Stanford's history department, offering Knoles a job for the coming year: as assistant, and then instructor, and then acting assistant professor, and on up the ladder. One of the first reads: "It was voted to recommend you to the President for a position as assistant in history for the year 1935-36 at a salary of $400 for three quarters."

Since Knoles has been a historian for decades, it makes sense that he ensured his papers were cared for. The letters are part of the 15 linear feet of George Harmon Knoles Papers in Stanford University Libraries' Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

The boxes go from 1920 to 1994, with memos, manuscripts, photos, lecture notes and syllabi. Visitors can explore these and many other collections in a high-ceilinged Special Collections Room. It's a colorful way to learn more about a person.

Much of Knoles' archive is about Japan. He was a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer there in 1971, but long before that was devoted to improving post-war relations between scholars by teaching in Japan in 1950-52 and 1956.

No doubt he treasured such correspondence as the 1957 letter from University of Tokyo student Tadao Akamura.

"When I was a little child, I was taught only that Americans were men of brutal nature," Akamura wrote in blue pen. "But having been taught in this University by some American professors, I wonder why Japan opened the war against such a good people.

"There must be many cause of the war, but not knowing or misunderstanding of other nation is among them, I believe."

Knoles also provides a different perspective of World War II in the letters he sent from the Pacific to his wife, Amandalee, and their two daughters, Ann and Alice. He often drew cartoons to depict what he saw outside his portholes. He wasn't allowed to give details about his location or duties, so these drawings must have helped the family imagine his days. Some letters are datelined merely "At Sea."

Typed or penned in very straight lines, Knoles' letters can be everyday ("The weather is now hot as blue blazes") and funny ("It was my second venture with the iron, and I must say I have a newfound respect for you," he wrote to his wife).

On Aug. 15, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender, Knoles wrote from the Philippines.

"According to our radio this morning the war is over ... All of the ships in the harbor blew their whistles," he wrote to daughter Ann. "Then they fired off rockets — white, green, red, smoke floats, and smoke signals which were spectacular."

Knoles closed with an encouraging message for his young daughter.

"We must all be patient in our anxiety to have family reunions. May God bless us and be with us, and may He make His face to shine upon us and give us peace.

"I love you, Ann.

"Your Dad, George."

— Rebecca Wallace


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