Unveiling the Secrets of Fan Letters: A Conversation with David Reagles

This May, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections talks with historian David Reagles, author of Searching for God in Britain and Beyond: Reading Letters to Malcolm Muggeridge, 1966-1982, about his journey through the vast collection of fan letters held in the Malcolm Muggeridge Papers.

When and how were you first introduced to Archives & Special Collections? What kinds of research projects have led you to the Archives’ collections?

I first stepped on Wheaton’s beautiful campus as a graduate student in 2011. Two moments really stand out in my mind when I think about the archives during those life-changing years. The first took place during a seminar on the history of evangelicalism in the Atlantic world. It was a wonderful eye-opening class, which included among other things a jaunt to the archives. There Bob Shuster masterfully guided us through proper archival procedures and etiquette, as well as offered an overview of the kinds of rich materials available. As we walked into the classroom, he had placed one or more archival boxes at each seat. After a short lecture, he asked us to open our materials and to try as best as we could to tell a “story” of the box. I recall pouring through the contents and feeling a kind of weird combination of confusion, excitement, anticipation, uncertainty, and discomfort. I loved it. That short lesson really affirmed the kind of joy-filled experience archival research could be.

Fan correspondence on various 1965 BBC programs that featured Malcolm Muggeridge, including one of him interviewing members of the John Birch Society. (SC-04, Folder 48-6)

The second occurred while serving as a student worker at the Billy Graham Center Library. My job was to check out/check in books and to perform various kinds of data entry. Just off the desk, there was a pamphlet display outlining many of the collections held by the Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections. I enjoyed browsing these and was impressed to see the college had papers of Jacques Ellul, Madeleine L’Engle, and Frederick Buechner. A few years later, I was trying to land on a good dissertation topic. I knew I wanted to study how reading practices and secularization interacted within the lives of faith of “ordinary people,” but I really wasn’t sure how to get at that. Historians tend to know a good deal about the inner lives of famous heroes of faith, but rank-and-file Christians are a bit harder to pin down. I remembered that pamphlet display and began searching the online collection finding aids to see if anything jumped out as relevant. That’s when I came across Malcolm Muggeridge’s papers and the profound number of fan letters he received. There are quite literally tens of thousands of fan letters in the Muggeridge collection. Here was someone who had spent much of his life as a critic of Christianity only to unexpectedly convert and become one of its ardent defenders in the 1960s and 1970s – even as churches witnessed a crisis of their own authority. It seemed a good bet that if Christians were reading Muggeridge’s books and articles their fan letters just might reveal how they coped with religious change.

What kinds of archival materials did you use most heavily? How did the form of the materials you worked with shape your research?

One of Malcolm Muggeridge’s typewriters, held in SC-04.

My entire project was based on these incredible letters. Most authors discard their fan mail or, if they decide to keep them, are quite selective. But not Muggeridge. He genuinely loved his fans. He wrote back to at least half of them—sometimes with the correspondence lasting years—and he invited some of them over to his house for tea and conversation. There were even a couple of instances where Muggeridge sent more letters to his fans then they did to him! Because of the kind of personal relationship that formed between author and reader, the project had to recognize that Muggeridge was in many ways a surrogate cleric for his fans.

I was fortunate to be working with letters that were exceptionally well organized. They were generally organized chronologically, though a few boxes had folders with letters focused on a particular work of Muggeridge’s, or even a particular issue. This was helpful because it forced thinking about the letters both thematically and diachronically.

What challenges did you face in your archival research?

Reading so many rich materials that may not have seen the light of day in a generation is a truly humbling and exciting experience. But those first minutes of excitement turn to hours turn to days turn to weeks. Monotony invites careless sloppiness. Additionally, due to time constraints, I had to take the archive with me, so to speak. I set up a high-resolution camera and took digital photographs of all the letters I needed. Some were as short as a post-card – but others were dozens of pages. Every day for nearly a month, I poured over hundreds of letters to find the relevant ones, take pictures, and then, at the end of the day, organize them into a digital archive for a closer analysis that might take place weeks or months later.

In your experience, what is the best part of archival research?

The best part of any archival experience is of course finding treasures. It is such a rush to stumble upon some piece of history that reveals something important or unexpected and then, in the moment, recognize meaningful connections with other material that crystalizes an argument you want to make. Now, that said, one of my favorite things to do is come up for air! It is always fascinating to learn what other researchers sitting across the table from you are doing.

Do you have any suggestions for students interested in doing archival research?

Yes, two! First, get to know the archivists. They have a wealth of knowledge and you will learn things from them that you will not find in published works. Second, let your research questions evolve as you work through archival material. The serendipitous and unexpected character of archival work forces us to continually revise and modify our lines of questioning.

What project are you currently working on?

The biggest project I am involved in currently is helping to start a new Christian high school in Mankato, MN. Mankato Christian Academy will open in the fall of 2023, and I will be serving as its Dean of Faculty.

Beyond that, I have several smaller writing projects – mostly book reviews and short articles. A larger project still in its infancy is an exploration of the religious life of the British economist and historian, Richard Tawney.

David Reagles graduated from Bethany Lutheran College (2011), Wheaton College (2013) and Drew University (2018). He taught in the history department at Bethany Lutheran College from 2015-2023, and currently serves as the Dean of Faculty for Mankato Christian Academy. His work on the fan letters of Malcolm Muggeridge, Searching for God in Britain and Beyond: Reading Letters to Malcolm Muggeridge, 1966-1982, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2021.

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