Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Trusting Secondary Sources

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.

Image: Frederick Douglass's violin, located at Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, D.C., now part of the National Parks Service.


  1. I'd be interested to know to what purpose the unfounded assertions were made; what narrative about Douglass' life (or of those around him, or of the authors of the book, or of the general public) were they serving?

    I've always wanted to play the violin. *wistful sigh*

    PS: My word verification was "presses"... Stop the Presses, what are they saying!

  2. Hey Digger! Thank you again for the link love!

    I'm thinking that the unfounded assertions were not necessarily made out of any malice. In fact, some of them were made to make Anna -- who is the focus of this particular post -- look better. I'm not sure that does her any good because that assumes that she herself was not up to a certain ideal standard for Douglass. That goes back to Greer's statement about Shakespeare's biographers: there is something that they want for their subject and something that they are trying to explain about their subject's attraction to this particular woman. In the absence of evidence, they embroider the details. I think I have another post about what we actually do know about Anna coming up next!

    I tried the violin as a small child. I sucked. Hence, I know the screetch scratches of the beginner. You would think my parents would have rethought the whole "we want her to be musical" desire and given into the ballet lessons. Those would have been softer on the ear! But, you know, it is never too late to try (you know, in your copious spare time).

  3. When Gandhi went to England as a student he also took up the violin as well as diction lessons. He said in his autobiography that he did that in order to try to be a proper English gentleman and quit when he realized he looked like an idiot. I wonder if Douglass and his biographer were on the same track. The biographer emphasized (or made up) the violin in order to accentuate his Victorian propriety, and maybe Douglass took up the violin for the same reason?

  4. Ubab, that's an interesting observation. I didn't know about the connection between Victorian propriety and the violin. If I can pinpoint when he learned the violing, then that piece will go to reinforce the argument that he consciously crafted himself into the black bourgeoisie. That would also make sense that the two biographers might suggest that Anna was invovlved because -- as will be covered in the chapter, the paper, and a later post! -- there was quite a bit of effort in her life and after to portray Anna as equally interested in joining the black bourgeoisie, which is not entirely wrong, but also not entirely accurate.

    The one who said that she actually played the violin? Would it be unprofessional to say that this particular book of his is a complete disaster of research, interpretation, and flat out fictionalization? His motives may have been to introduce new and interesting material into a book completely devoid of such, or it may be -- as I have noticed since the last full traditional biography of Douglass -- a way to address the women in his life and include them in his story without doing a whole lot of work into the women themselves. Thank goodness for the last because more room for me!

  5. A little tidbit here: Sarah Blackall, whose family I am researching, made a violin case for Douglass, according to a 1929 write-up of family memories by her daughter Gertrude. She wrote, "Mr. Douglass kept his beloved violin in a silk case that mother made for him from her wedding gown."

  6. McFeely says that the offices for the New National Era were in Uniontown. He makes no notes of that and I see no evidence in any city directories. There are many others. This is probably a systemic problem with most books.

  7. John M -- First, my apologies that your comment was caught in moderation. Seconds, McFeely's notes are questionable to say the least, but I'm giving him a slight pass because some of the issue may be with the publisher. Have you found the location?

    Sally -- Responding almost a year later -- that is an interesting story. Is this a Rochester or D.C. friend?

    1. Just now seeing this! Sarah Blackall and her husband, Frank, and their children were Rochester friends of Douglass and his family.

  8. Every year that the New National Era is listed in City Directories the address for the paper is 11th Street NW. McFeely says the "offices" of the paper were in Uniontown which doesn't seem to square straight. And since he makes no citation there is no way to confirm or refute. In 19th century printing shops, from what I have read, the press and offices were in the same location. The city directories show Charles R. living in "Potomac City" in 1869. In 1871 Frederick is listed in the City Directory as "Douglass Frederick, editor New National Era, Anacostia" with his son, Frederick Jr. also living in Anacostia. Frederick, Jr. is listed as a printer.

    Looking over the paper it doesn't make any mention of the paper having offices anywhere other than 11th Street NW.

  9. You're right that Uniontown doesn't square. I'm pretty sure that 11st NW would be more likely. Charles did live around Uniontown, and Cedar Hill was sometimes designated as being in Uniontown. If the paper says 11st NW, go with that. Remember that biographers can sometimes be wrong -- even me!

  10. Hi, Leigh - Just saw your question. Sarah Blackall was a Rochester friend. Her family and his were friends. (Her husband was Burton "Frank" Blackall. Among other things, he managed Douglass' properties in Rochester after they moved to DC.) They remained friends after the move, and I know Sarah and maybe her daughters visited them at least once there.