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.

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