Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Should You Use Generalizations? Or Should You Avoid Them?

When you are studying a subject or person -- especially a person -- in depth, you start to notice things that make you say, "oh, he was always doing that sort of thing." I do it, for instance, when I say such things, as I did in an earlier post about Douglass, as  "He writes like this a lot to people." That was in a blog post, however; and, if I were to put something like that in my manuscript, I would add a couple of examples in either the text or a discursive end note. Am I being to picky or overly cautious about such things?

I am thinking about this because of some of the generalizations made in the book I love to hate to love to Zapruder, Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines. In one instance, she writes, "Several manuscripts in Assing’s handwriting in the Douglass Papers show that she sometimes served as his secretary, and it is possible that she even drafted letters, speeches, and editorials for him." [p. 193] Since Diedrich also makes the claim that Assing wrote Douglass's editorials in the New National Era, a claim I find troubling and that is based only on a letter from Assing to her sister (an interaction that renders the claim unreliable), that I cannot check right now because it is written in German 19th century script, and that I have no idea of verifying independent of Assing, I thought I should at least check similar claims that might strengthen or weaken that assertion. This seemed to be one.

Fortunately, there is a footnote for this sentence that refers readers to "Drafts of letters to George T. Downing on Ebenezer Bassett’s appointment as minister to Haiti (FD to G.T. Downing. Undated but 1869. FDP. LC) and to Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts (FD to H. Wilson. 12 September 1866. FDP. LC) are in Assing’s handwriting.”

You can see both of those letters online, as well as a sample of Assing's handwriting. They match.  So, yes, Assing seems to have sometimes written drafts of letters for Douglass. At least, she did so on two occasions during a three year period. Does the rest of Diedrich's assertion, then, follow from this citation? Did Assing also write "speeches and editorials for him"? Does this mean that she "served as his secretary"? Do these two examples -- and I have found no others in the two years in question, and I am looking for other examples, including among the other types of documents in the Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress -- even merit the adjective "several"?

Am I being too strict here? How do you convey something common that you have observed in your research that might earn "several" or "usual" or any such other sort of descriptor without entering every single instance in your notes? Should you enter every single instance, to CYA? Would a better note in this particular example have given citations of not only letters, but speeches and editorials, and given citations over a broader period of time? Would a better way to have handled this have been to write the sentence differently to narrow down the period of time or type of document? Was this an awkward use of these two letters, which may have served another argument better, if at all?

I'm also resisting the urge to say that Diedrich does this frequently. I feel as if I should give more examples to prove "frequently." Perhaps this should serve as another. The example in that post says that "Douglass hinted at marital problems in letters to friends, describing himself in 1848, for example, as a 'most unhappy man.'" In that post, I pointed out the problems with that citation, which I think might disqualify it from being an example for that particular point. Yet, no other examples appear in that citation. You can find evidence for marital problems -- this example just is not among them -- and you can find at least one example from Douglass himself from a rather shocking letter from 1857. Can, however, this be described  in the way that Diedrich does here? Is this just an example of a poorly argued point that might have been rewritten with better use of the sources? Should you avoid the use of generalizations at all?

This troubles me because the framing of the story in this way -- that this or that sort of thing was constantly happening, without defining when and under what conditions and without enough evidence to back up the assertion of continual behavior -- is the way that dubious information enters into the message creep syndrome. I have, in the past six months, heard repeated both the "fact" that Anna Murray was pregnant before she got married to Douglass and that the scene in Douglass's autobiographies in which a black man in Manhattan helped him find David Ruggles was a gay pickup. The first "fact" comes from William McFeely's biography, in which he asserts his claim in the face of evidence to the contrary, and the second comes from John Stauffer's book Giants, in which he throws in that interpretation into his narrative -- absent any queer theory or secondary literature about the history of homosexuality -- in order to have some sort of parallel with the oft-questioned belief that Lincoln was gay. In both instances, the ideas are intriguing, but the evidence weak if non-existant. Yet, the ideas are being repeated without examination of the source.

In other words, this troubles me because this is the way that myth gets made, not history.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Caught Between a Cliche and Some Jargon

This started out as a couple of postings and comments on Facebook.

Let's play a game. Translate the passage: "The theoretical problem in enjoining the phenomenology of daily life with the political history that periodizes the past and macro social structures is that it requires a structural analysis, yet one which while not being deterministic retains the activity and intentionality of women as a historical subject." (from "The New Historical Syntheses: Women's Biography," a 1990 article in the Journal of Women's History, by Kathleen Barry)

I honestly don't mean to be bitchy -- ok, not too bitchy -- because this is an interesting study in an attempt to convey a complex idea. You want specific language in order to explain this idea, but you also want to actually communicate that idea to other people. People who went to more theoretically based graduate programs than mine -- or who didn't curl up into the fetal position and whimper at their own inadequacies when faced with such passages -- might have no problem understanding this. Me? I had to pretty much sound this out, and I think it comes down to saying that the biographer should attempt to explain how their subject understood their own life in the context of the Big Picture events of their time without assuming that all women responded in the same way to something like, for example, the suffrage movement or abolition, simply because they were all women. In other words, all women are not from Venus, all women do not like shopping, nor have a shoe fetish, nor are dying to get married and have babies.

This is related to a problem that I am puzzling through with Douglass. I struggle in comprehending the emotional lives of my subjects in order to explain those lives in a way that a modern audience will understand without falling into cliché or platitudes. The moment a cliché or platitude appears in the work, you know a writer has hit the limit of their ability to express a particular idea. I’m trying very hard not to do that. The clichés and platitudes are of the same sort of creature as the highly academic language, except that clichés overgeneralize while the academic language attempts to be overly specific. They still end up saying very little to most people because they are overly general or are understandable to only a select few who are willing to put in the work of reading past the first paragraph. Even then, I'm not certain that the actual idea is still being expressed with any clarity, even to those steeped in the language (and I wouldn't be surprised if people who write like that are still frustrated at their inability to completely explain exactly what they mean).

To be more specific about some of the writing problems that I am having, I am working on Chapter 1, which deals with Douglass's mother, grandmother, and slave mistresses. In the absence of documentation from the hand of any of these women, I have to piece together their lives relying upon plantation and state records, and Douglass's accounts, which were written at a remove of over a decade for a predominantly northern, white, middle class audience. In other words, I have to muck through a lot of contingencies to get to the real woman.

Now, an easy way to get around some of the problems that I am facing with these women would be to say something like, "well, all women would love their babies, so Harriet Bailey loved hers." What if those babies were conceived in rape? What if she hated their father? What if she loved them but knowing that they would be taken away from her meant that she had to steel herself against any affection? What if she was just a nasty person like the "Aunt Katy" whom Douglass despised and who attacked her own son with a knife?

Yet, I am also highly aware that, in going into the meaner, harder possibilities, as a white woman I can also run into my own unexamined racism. I don't want to sound like I am going to the other extreme by saying that "all enslaved women rejected their children" or "black women cannot be good mothers" because that is not it at all. I am trying to understand the behavior of Harriet Bailey, mother of Frederick, who probably had some complicated and conflicting emotions about her children that defy the stereotypes of good or bad mothers.

I think Douglass himself was guilty, although perhaps intentionally guilty, of using the stereotypes of a good mother about his own and about the women that appear in my chapter. Not really knowing his mother, wanting to portray her to this audience who still had much unexamined racism in their midst, and perhaps also wanting to understand his own abandonment, he relied upon stock characters of mothers. The same with Sophia Auld, his "tender-hearted" mistress, before she turned on him.

What I think I'm getting at here is that, as I read and re-read and ultimately Zapruder things written about Douglass's life, I become frustrated at this assumption that emotions have always been the same across time (tell tale by such phrases as "as any child would" or "typical of any young man"); and I am struggling to write around that place in the story in the absence of declarations. I fear that I am stripping my story of its emotional component, which is dishonest, but not as dishonest as relying upon a sort of flattening of all experience into some sort of ahistorical Hallmark card.

As I struggle to write around the emotions, I also struggle with the words. What words are best and in what order to explain something so slippery and ephemeral as the emotional life of a stranger in a different time and in circumstances that are wholly alien to myself? What words are original and also comprehensible and will in some way convey as precisely as possible the place in the world that these women occupied?

Alas, that is probably why that passage from that article preoccupied me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Research Links

Over to the right side of the screen, you will see a new feature, this list:

Douglass and Women Research Resources
(these are not linked -- you have to go over to the side bar for the link!)
  • "A Partnership in the Abolition Movement," University of Rochester Library Bulletin
  • Amy Kirby Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan
  • Anti-Slavery Literature Project
  • Black Abolitionist Archive
  • Boston Public Library Antislavery Collection
  • Dccumenting the American South
  • Epitaph, Friends of Mount Hope (cemetery) Newsletter
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (Cedar Hill), Anacostia, D.C.
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Virtual Museum Exhibit
  • Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, American Memory
  • Frederick Douglass Project, University of Rochester
  • Frederick Douglass, Maryland State Archives
  • Garrison Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection
  • Howard Coles Collection, Rochester Museum and Science Center
  • Lynn (Mass.) Museum and Historical Society
  • Porter Family Papers, University of Rochester
  • Post Family Papers, University of Rochester
  • Rochester History (journal) Index
  • Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan
  • Samuel J. May Antislavery Collection
  • Women's Rights National Historic Park, Seneca Falls
  • WorldCat (global library catalog)

The list links to various websites relating to Frederick Douglass and Women that you might find interesting for yourself or, if you are a teacher, your students. Some are finding aids for archival collections, which describe the collection and sometimes tell you specific items that are in the collection. Others take you to websites for museums and historic sites connected to Douglass. Some will take you to actual sources, both journal articles and scanned images of historic documents.

Many people are interested in the last because seeing the document, the thing written in the person's hand, is the real thrill of history research. If you want to see documents written by and to Douglass, take a look at Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, American Memory; Frederick Douglass Project, University of Rochester; and Boston Public Library Antislavery Collection. These are the ones that I use the most online. The Library of Congress site contains the bulk of Douglass's papers, preserved by his second wife, Helen [Pitts] Douglass at Cedar Hill. The project at the University of Rochester has images of letters and some transcriptions of the correspondence to and from Frederick Douglass that are contained in the Post and Porter Family Papers. The Boston Public Library collection has, as of now, the Weston Sisters Papers and good chunks of the William Lloyd Garrison Papers, as well as some Samuel May Papers. Their site is very sophisticated, being more recent and plugged into Not only can you see scanned images, but they have included summaries of the letters (to varying degrees of quality) and the letters are indexed for key words.

In fact, if you want a night of history nerd fun, go to the BPL collection and read letters to or from Richard D. Webb, John B. Estlin, and Maria Weston Chapman. They were the living embodiment of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's (often misattributed to the equally scathing Dorothy Parker) recommendation, "if you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me."

The National Parks Service at Cedar Hill also has some terrific images of Douglass, his family, the objects in the house, historic images of the house, and a virtual tour of the house.

I will gradually add to the list; but, if you know of any other online resources, feel free to add them in the comments section!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Shameless Bragging

Last Wednesday, I delivered a paper on "The Feminine World of Frederick Douglass" here at Queens College in Belfast, Northern Ireland.:

The Queens faculty who had invited me, Anthony Stanonis, Brian Kelly, and most especially, Catherine Clinton (who must be one of the most supportive historians for junior colleagues in the history of historians), all welcomed me and ensured that I had a packed room, coffee beforehand, and drinks and dinner afterward. They also made this cool poster to publicize the event.:

Great choice of picture! Also, note how they publicized my other two books there at the bottom?

Everyone was friendly and polite. Audiences on this side of the ocean either pay attention very well, or do an impressive, Tony Award winning performance of faking it. I tend to believe the former.

So, my gratitude to all!

Also, thank you to Angela Murphy for passing this along.:

Thank you also to Ann "Historiann" Little, who herself is an incredibly supportive historian. We have met at the Little Berks conference and she is an amazing, funny, smart person. With luck, her influence will drive this humble blog's readership up from an average of 15 readers per week (five of whom are me)!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Source Message Creep

Here is an object lesson on the reasons that you should avoid "as quoted in" in your own citations.

In Love Across the Color Lines, Maria Deidrich wrote of Ottilia Assing's interpretation of her relationship with Frederick Douglass and that Assing "believed that the Douglass marriage had been over long before she entered the scene, and in a way she was right." As evidence, Diedrich wrote, "Douglass hinted at marital problems in letters to friends, describing himself in 1848, for example, as a 'most unhappy man.'" [Diedrich, 175] The argument here, then, is that Ottilia Assing had a twentieth century understanding of a marriage being "over." This is based on Douglass saying one time, eight years before he even met Assing, that he was "most unhappy." The implication being that Douglass was unhappy in his marriage and, extrapolating from that unhappiness in 1848, his marriage was probably headed for divorce by 1856. I say "headed for divorce" because, it is clear through the rest of the book, Diedrich thinks Assing thinks this.

The source for this "unhappy" quote is this: "FD to Abigail and Lydia Mott, 21 February 1848, quoted in mcFeely, FD, p. 154." O.k. Let's take a look at McFeely, p. 154. McFeely wrote:
Late in February, Douglass wrote the Mott sisters that he was a "most unhappy man." His "house hunting had not been successful and "Anna has not been well--or very good humored since we came here. She," he added, a bit less gloomily, "however looks better." In April, things looked up. [McFeely, 154]
Has anyone ever been in Rochester in February? Imagine it without central heating. His mood improved, according to McFeely, because he had found a house in which to live. Now, perhaps you could infer that his unhappiness had to do with his wife's mood, but also he had to find a home in a new city while also trying to start up a new business. Nothing here says anything that might indicate that the marriage itself was unhappy or in anyway on the path to being "over."

The source for McFeely was "Douglass to Abigail and Lydia Mott, Feb. 21, 1848." No repository because "Except where otherwise noted, citations of letters to or from Frederick Douglass are from the photostatic copies of his correspondence in the Yale University Frederick Douglass Papers." [McFeely, 387] Not to sound catty -- but to be totally catty -- would it have been too much trouble to find the actual source in the actual repository, not a photocopy in a project's office that might not exist ten or fifteen years down the road given the funding of such projects and the fate of some of the project papers? At least he was honest and did not try to claim that he did research at places where he did not.

So, alas, that is his source, and his source is no longer at Yale. His source is at the Frederick Douglass Papers project at IUPUI in Indianapolis. The actual source, the letter itself, is located in the Ida Husted Harper Papers at the Huntington Library, so I can forgive using the Douglass Papers project. It would have been rather a needle in a haystack in the pre-internet days.

Guess where I used to work? I even did some of the annotation for that letter. Those Mott ladies were a pain to track down, let me tell ya! You can find it in the first volume of the project's Correspondence Series on pages 296-7. Here is what the relevant part of the letter says (I'm leaving out the two post scripts that actually run about as long as the letter itself):
The mail of this moment is a most welcome one. Friendship like every other good thing -- needs constant cultivation. Kind words which are so cheap and yet so useful -- and blissful. Why should we ever be sparing of them? -- I have been -- oh! What a weak confession a most unhappy man -- and simply because I have not been able to make all my arrangements for the last completely square with my wishes. What weak -- foolish and discontented creatures we are. I half think had you been near in my gloomy moments, and could have poured into my ear, those words and sentiments of love and sympathy with which your full hearts abound, my troubled spirit would have soon freed itself from its burden -- leaped up like a tired camel from its load. I have been house hunting ever since we arrived -- and have not yet secured a suitable location. Anne has not been well -- or very good humoured since we came here. She however looks better -- as I feel better to day. We are a weak set of mortals. I have many things I should like to say but hurry prevents.
I emphasized the quote.

First of all, he was sorta flirting with them. He writes like this a lot to people like Amy Post, women whom he liked and whom he was friendly with on a personal basis. These two women are caring for his daughter, so he is of course going to be solicitous and flattering.

Second, he was poking a bit of fun at his own self-pity with all of the hyperbole. He even seems to be quoting something although, even now with Google, I can't seem to find the quote. While he may have been "kidding on the square" -- that is, stating a fact but phrasing it as if he were not serious about the statement -- and suffering from the pressures of finding that new home and starting that new business and having a sick wife and three small children, all while trying to, you know, fight the system of slavery...well, you can see that he might be referring to things other than his marriage.

That is to say, the context of the quote in this letter does not indicate that his marriage was on its way to being "over" or that he was in any way unhappy with the marriage. Yet, that is what it has become between the document itself and Diedrich's use of the "most unhappy man" quotation.

So, let that be a lesson: check the primary source before you use "as quoted in," especially if that quote is your sole piece of evidence for what will ultimately be a speculative claim about a long-dead couple's marriage. "As quoted in" may be obscuring the context of the quotation and then you get it all wrong.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Snag in Chapter One

I get trapped in my periodization sometimes. Originally, Chapter 1 broke down neatly into mothers and mistresses, with little overlap. Douglass's mother, the near non-entity he struggled to know as he wrote his autobiographies, is followed by his grandmother, whom he knew better and longer for the first few years of his memory. Then, he moved under the supervision of Lucretia Auld, then Sophia Auld, then Rowena Auld, then Sophia Auld again, then he ran away.

As I begin to get deeper into the story, this arrangement, which is a good skeleton, is far too simple. The mother and grandmother overlap; and, in the telling, the grandmother comes second, not first. At the Anthony house, where Lucretia moves to the front of the story, her counterpoint in the kitchen, Aunt Katy, begins to demand space (and she was quite the demanding woman in Douglass's version of events). Rowena Auld is little more than a guard dog of the pantry, and Douglass spent few months under her supervision for her to merit too much attention. During those months, however, it seems that his sister Eliza has some small role that he suggested but upon which he did not elaborate. His cousin Henny also pushes her way into the story. Yet, in this particular series of episodes in which he lived in Talbot County as a teenager, he carefully constructed and described a male-dominated world. Sophia he knew the longest and most intimately, and she appeared and re-appeared three times in his life. She will take up a good chunk of the chapter, and she will also reappear in a later chapter.

My initial divisions, too, have not taken into account the women scattered throughout his autobiographies who suffered brutal beatings and, he implied, rape. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, while he spoke in general terms of men being beaten, he described specific instances of beatings as happening to women (and one elderly man). I can buy that he saw few black women when he was hired out as a field hand in his teens in Talbot County, but in Baltimore, where he spent over half of his life until his escape, black women were in the majority. He only mentioned two, and they were beaten by a neighbor. As for free black women, he mentioned Sandy’s wife only. Otherwise, you would never know that black women could be free in Fells Point until you get to his marriage in New York to Baltimorean Anna Murray who, by the way, he mentioned in a footnote in the Narrative, was free.

As I organized this chapter, I had overlooked women who were not the primary caretakers of Douglass. Since this chapter has to do with his formative experiences with women and, by extension, his formative experiences with race, I cannot omit these women and the function that they served in creating the world in which he grew up. I also cannot omit the fact that he uses their stories in making his own point and that those stories only told what he saw and could use. He was not maliciously appropriating their lives, he seemed to be trying to speak for them when they could not, but he did not know or relate much more of their story than the beating, and they might have told the story in a different way. These often unnamed women haunt this chapter in a way that I have not yet fully incorporated and I have to do something with the absence of the free black women from his autobiographies.