How do you trust your secondary sources when you check their primary source and discover that the primary source does not say what the secondary source purports it to say? In fact, the primary source doesn't even touch on the subject.
I keep coming across this problem. An interesting "fact" crops up in a secondary source, one that seems less well-known or that I haven't heard of before. Interested in the primary source for that (and hoping that the primary source will be something new that will give me greater insight into my own inquiries), I check the notes. The notes cite another secondary source. So, I go to that secondary source. That secondary source often cites and another, which cites another, and I end up on a scavenger hunt to find this elusive primary source. Then, when I finally find a reference to a primary source, I look at the primary source and that alleged fact is nowhere in that primary source.
Thus far, I have found this sort of problem consistently with much having to do with Douglass's youth in Maryland, with much surrounding Anna Douglass, and with anything connected to the Underground Railroad (which is a whole other messy area in which what happened and what people wanted to happen get all mixed up and repeated as fact). Right now, I'm tangling with sources that describe bits about Frederick and Anna's meeting and her influence upon him during their early relationship for which I cannot find primary sources -- and I really really want those primary sources!
The first bit has to do with the free black East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, which Douglass mentions in passing in his autobiographies. He is, in fact, the only primary source for that organization, and he will probably always be that only primary source. The little group of free black men and their one slave member may have passed into obscurity had it not been for that one slave member writing about their contributions to his development and then going on to be the most famous black man of the nineteenth century.
The second bit has to do with Douglass and the violin. Two secondary sources say that Anna encouraged Frederick to learn to play the violin and that they purchased sheet music together in Baltimore. Secondary source A cites secondary source B, and secondary source B cites My Bondage and My Freedom, which says nothing of the sort. Secondary source A, in fact, goes so far as to say that Anne herself played the violin. Secondary source A again cites secondary source B as well as another secondary source on the first mention of Anna's purported skill, then cites a 19th century secondary source on the second mention. I confess that I haven't seen the 19th century source as yet, and am grateful for the notation, so that bit of information may develop further. Nevertheless, I've now come across yet another 19th century source that says that Douglass took up the violin in England. I know from his own hand that he did know how to play at least one song by the time he was in England -- "Camels a'Comin'" -- in 1846. Was that actually something that he had just learned in the previous year while also making speech after speech in town after town? Was he so beloved that his hosts never mentioned the screetching of a beginning violinist?
In any case, what does this matter? Back at the Douglass Papers, these sorts of trivial-seeming research questions and tasks (all of which I loved because they were like detective work) all resulted in annotations. In fact, this sort of research led me to the questions that produced this book project. Annotations, however, are a very different creature than an oblique biography. An oblique biography demands that the details support some purpose.
In the case of the violin, I'm not entirely sure what a confirmation of that fact will tell, but it will go in the pile of evidence about Anna's life that will ultimately produce a more complicated picture of her or, at the very least, add to the set of questions about her life that seem to define the -- to use an artistic term -- negative space around the image of her and might go toward explaining more about the arc of the Douglass courtship and marriage. Certainly his ability to play the violin created a point of connection with his second wife, Helen. What role, if any, did it play in his life with Anna? What, in fact, did skill on the violin mean to them, other than a night's entertainment?
In any case, in portraying Anna, I'm finding that I am portraying a set of possibilities rather than a set of facts or even a testable theory. I want to be very clear about that in my text (or, depending upon the editor's choice, in my notes) because I want readers to be able to trust my assertions or at least test me by going to the primary source.
Frederick Douglass's violin, located at Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, D.C., now part of the National Parks Service.