Monday, January 23, 2012

More Source Creep

First, my apologies to Contingent Cassandra and John for not noticing that your comments were sucked up by the comment moderator. I've let them through and, with any luck, they will recognize you in the future.

Onward to the post:

Back when I was an editor at the Frederick Douglass Papers publishing project at IUPUI, I did a significant amount of detailed research into all sorts of other details in order to annotate the correspondence that Yale University Press eventually published as Volume I. In annotating the first letter that Douglass wrote to Julia Griffiths, I did everything I could to find out what I could about her background using primarily Interlibrary Loan. Young folks, I know this is hard to imagine, but in that world of the early 2000s, Google was new and we didn't have (I cannot stop loving, and a subscription is well worth the price for any scholar). So I had to follow some of the leads of secondary sources and, well, I've discussed some of the pitfalls of that path.

The case in point here has to do with the city in which Julia Griffiths lived and met Frederick Douglass. Here is what the first biographer who mentions the location has to say: "Miss Griffiths had met Douglass at Newcastle –upon—Tyne." (p. 87) That was Benjamin Quarrels, who wrote the first academic biography of Douglass in 1948. Two years later, Philip Foner, in his biography of Douglass, wrote, "Miss Griffiths, a daughter of a close friend of Wilberforce, the British Abolitionist, had met Douglass at Newcastle-upon-Tyne during his tour abroad and they had become fast friends at once." (p. 87 -- yes, also p. 87) Over thirty years later, in his Mind of Frederick Douglass (1984) Waldo E. Martin, Jr., wrote, "Douglass and Julia Griffiths, and English abolitionist, first met in her hometown of Newcastle-upon-Tyne during his initial tour of the British Isles (1845-1847)." (Not page 87 this time, p. 40) William McFeely, in his 1991 biography, getting a little creative, wrote, “He spent Christmas 1846 in Newcastle upon Tyne with the Richardsons; there he met another articulate, intelligent antislavery worker, Julia Griffiths, and talked to her of his plan for starting a newspaper on his return to America." (p. 145) Finally, Maria Diedrich, in the deeply flawed Love Across Color Lines (1999) wrote, "Then, when Julia Griffiths, a British abolitionist from Newcastle-on-Tyne, followed Douglass to Rochester to live with his family and help him with his paper, it seemed clear to many of his friends that a rupture in the Douglass marriage was final, and the Garrisonians spread rumors about the alleged affair in an attempt to ruin the ‘defector’s’ reputation." (p. 86. We shall save the completely ludicrous statement about the Douglass marriage for another time.)

Not a single one of these volumes cites any source for this information. Now, I can guess that all of the biographers after Quarrels simply relied upon him or the prior biographer for their information. McFeely, as he does elsewhere in his biography, illustrates some of the dangers of attempting to dramatize an event for which there is no documentation. I myself, in an effort to find the source of Julia's origins in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, drove myself and the IUPUI interlibrary loan staff to distraction in searching microfilm of city directories and census records. All to no avail. "Why on earth would he place her there?" I kept asking myself.

I think he did so because John Estlin, an abolitionist in Bristol, England, wrote to Samuel May, an abolitionist in Boston, that Griffiths "is a great friend of Mrs. Richardson’s." (John Estlin to Samuel May, Bristol, England, 30 January 1849, Samuel May Papers, Anti-Slavery Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library.) As Quarrels said, the Richardsons lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He must have assumed that Griffiths, as a friend, lived nearby.

Unfortunately, other documentation did not bear this out, which made me very frustrated as I tried to track her down. On an 1848 circular for a bazaar to raise funds for Douglass's paper contained this information about the organizers: "Misses Griffiths, Beckenham, Kent, and 5 Charles Square, London." Also living at 5 Charles Square was T. Powis Griffiths, who was listed as someone collecting subscriptions for Douglass's newspaper the North Star at the same time. The miracle that is then let me to census and birth records that all show Julia Griffiths as having been born and -- I am assuming this part -- raised in London. All of my efforts to locate her in Newcastle-upon-Tyne came to naught because she never lived there. Yet, because these biographers have all cited someone who did not cite his own source, she has been described as meeting Douglass in a place that she most likely never visited.

Oddly, for these biographers, that one source that said she was a friend of Mrs. Richardson outweighed the three others in the same collection from the same period that all place her in the company of Mary Howitt, one of the editors of Howitt's Journal. Where did Mary Howitt live and edit said journal? London, England. The Devil is really in the details, isn't it?

Of course, many would say that this is all simple hair-splitting. What does it matter if she met Douglass in Newcastle-upon-Tyne or in London? Well, the point isn't so much in the detail as in the point that most of these biographers were not curious enough about Griffiths to investigate her life. They could describe her contact with Douglass, based upon prior biographers and upon his own descriptions in his autobiographies, fleshed out by some of the gossip in those ever bitchy Garrisonians' letters, but not a one has ever actually investigated and analyzed her life. As a result, she has been sorely underestimated.

Thank goodness for that! Their oversight opens up a place for a pedantic little voyeur like myself (and to British scholars who have written as yet unpublished articles on Julia alone, not in relation to Douglass -- more on them as their research comes out) to add a little bit to the scholarship.