Monday, August 8, 2011

Bad Research Day

I started the day off by posting this on Facebook:
Off to the Archives of American Art. What I hope to find: salacious details of Ottilia Assing's forbidden love for Frederick Douglass. What I will probably find: leads on 19th century artists' addresses, the status of her dogs, and various travelogues, but not a dang thing pertinent to Douglass. All in German. Still, it is Ottilia, and she is usually a chatty correspondent.

I was so naive 12 hours ago.

The Archives of American Art is very easy to find, just a block down 9th Street from the National Portrait Gallery and Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop. The archivists -- all painfully young -- are friendly and helpful. The young woman working the manuscripts reading room had even processed the Sylvester Rosa Koehler Papers in which the Ottilia Assing letters were located. Plus, the whole design of the space looked like a modern art gallery. Very cool.

The box was big, not one of those grey Hollinger boxes, but a cube-ish file box with lots of folders. The Assing folders have several letters each, and each letter is 3-5 pages long and in superb condition. This was going to be awesome. Sure, I expected them all to be in German, and that I would be transcribing German all day to translate later. I have about three words of German -- at least one of which is obscene -- but a general knowledge of the grammar and syntax that, with a dictionary and a translation website, could help me get the gist of the contents. I've done it before with the Karl Varnhagan von Ense finding aid. Plus, from her letters in English, I know Assing's hand writing is quite legible. Here is an example from the Library of Congress:

Not bad, right? Nicely shaped, no smudging, clearly delineated words. You can read it, which is not always the case. Gerrit Smith is a legendary case in point.

Her German handwriting is not quite as good. It's neat, that is certain, but the shapes of her letters made me wonder if I were not perhaps reading Russian. I spent thirty minutes deciphering the words "Hoboken" and "Rochester" -- and I'm still not certain that "Rochester" actually does say "Rochester." The jumble of letters that seems to say “Linber Hnow Rouflar!” may or may not actually say "Liebe Herr Koehler!" I read over another series of linked loops at least ten times before I realized that it said "Douglass." It looks like it says "Largfuff." Don't ask me how I managed to decipher the shape that spelled out "Washington."

In fact, I began to make a list of squiggles that I had deciphered:
  • What looks like Hobuknn is Hoboken
  • What looks like Rosfuflao is Rochester
  • Hs look like Wz
  • Small h looks like and f – loop above and below
  • T is never crossed
  • Capital S looks like cursive S, so does Capital A
  • Little e looks like tiny capital E or r
  • “ist” looks like Ift
  • Little p has a definite loop at the front like a p, but backbone goes above the loop
  • W looks like NB
  • Baltimore looks like “Lultimoon”
  • Greetings look like: “Linber Hnow Rouflar!” but might be “Lieber Herr Koehler!” Or “lieben Herr Koehler!” or “Liebe Herr Koehler”
  • Closings look like “Tpen Ottilie Assing”

In fact, Ottilie Assing actually looks like "Ollilir Affug."

Even with legible writing in English, you have to sometimes spend a little time over a word, comparing its loops to similar loops elsewhere in the document, discerning a few letters and playing with their sounds in your head and with the context of the rest of the sentence before the word suddenly appears to you, like one of those hidden pictures so popular in the early 1990s. That, however, requires agility with the language and familiarity with the shapes of the letters. In this case, the shapes of her German letters are not like the shapes of her English letters; and I, with my three years of high school and one semester of college German (which stuck with me longer than my six semesters of college French, but c'est la vie), all taken when leg warmers were still in style, cannot play with the shapes and sounds and make anything appear. Even the simple words that I do know, like "ein" and "ist" and "und," took me at least ten minutes to pick out.

"Ach, scheiss," I said, over and over and over. "I am totally effed." (Except I used another word, and I don't know the German for it.) How on earth am I going to get through this? I can't even transcribe them at this point. A shortcut occurred to me, that I could just use Maria Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines and cite these types of documents "as quoted in." Except I hate when historians do that. It's a graduate school trick, and casts doubt upon your argument because you never know if the person who quoted the passage originally quoted it in proper context. You have to see the quotation in context, and the context might give you so much more information.

That is, if you can actually read the context.

Also, in this case, while I'm not challenging Maria Deidrich's interpretation, I am questioning some of the finer points and I can't even really question in my own head, much less in print, if I can't read the letters she read and on which she based her arguments.

Now, if there were only some way I could trace out Assing's handwriting and puzzle over it on my own or with someone who has a better reading knowlege of German. If there were only some way that I could duplicate the image. If there were only some way in which I could blow that image up or shrink it down. If there were only some way that I could do this without paying a quarter per page.

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