A Long Time Ago in an Archive Far, Far Away

Michael D. Hattem continues our roundtable on James Merrell’s article, “‘Exactly as they appear’: Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History” from the most recent issue of Early American Studies.

A long time ago in an archive far, far away

Some of our (very) regular readers will know that I have a penchant for occasionally adopting a bit of the role of contrarian. For me, it serves as a way to shake myself into thinking differently about something, and I would hope it does the same for the reader. For this roundtable, it could have been quite easy to sing the praises of Dr. Merrell’s excellent article, and go on a 500-word rant about why historians should always seek out the manuscript sources over older published collections. However, I think my slot in this roundtable is an excellent opportunity to try to approach the article differently, one that attempts to historicize its meta-argument from a documentary editing perspective.

As an historian of colonial New York, Dr. Merrell’s article certainly gave me pause, particularly his mention of Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York. That is a collection that I have used in almost every piece of research and historical writing I have done. John Romeyn Brodhead was a graduate of Rutgers College and a lawyer, who in 1839 was appointed to the U.S. delegation at the Hague. His longstanding interest in American colonial history led him to begin scouring the Dutch archives for documents related to the British North American colonies. Brodhead found so much that with the aid of lobbying by the New-York Historical Society, the New York state legislature passed an act to fund the collection and transcription of any documents relating to colonial New York history. In just about four years, Brodhead also traveled to England and France and in the end collected enough documents (many never seen by an American) to fill fifteen large printed volumes, which were published between 1853 and 1883. Historians of colonial New York still use those volumes today, and those without the resources to travel to the dozens of archives in three different European countries to transcribe the documents themselves still rely on them. That may be for better or worse, and Merrell’s article has certainly raised many questions about my own research practices related to these volumes. However, I think before we dismiss (or, worse, subtly denigrate) the extraordinary efforts that went into making these documents available to Americans or historians from the early twentieth century, we should take account of the historical and professional contexts in which they worked.

The standards even in the first half of the twentieth century were not less “exacting” so much as they were just different. I used to read many pre-1950 histories of early America (a sort-of hobby before grad school forced me to focus all my energy on only the most recent work). In those days, it was common (and it still occurs today, though seemingly less frequently) for historians to “fix” quotes, either by updating their spelling or correcting their punctuation. That practice has never sat well with me. Personally, if I deem a quote worthy enough to use in support of an argument, I want my reader to feel assured that I am quoting exactly what was either printed or written, spelling and grammatical idiosyncrasies and all. But it’s not just for comprehension or interpretation, though Dr. Merrell has shown us numerous examples in this article of how important it is for comprehension. It’s also for accuracy and, perhaps, to me, most important of all, a sense of fidelity to the historical record.

That said, it has to be understood that in the early twentieth century and especially in the nineteenth century, historians (or in the latter, more accurately, antiquarians) had a different notion of what “fidelity to the historical record” meant. It seems to me quite anachronistic (and a bit derogatory) to call Mark and Handlin “careless.” And it might serve a better understanding of our own “predicament” to consider exactly what Mark and Handlin meant when they said “exactly as they appear.” While we can all endorse “the principle that accurate editorial work is vital to responsible historical interpretation,” we should also understand that our conception of “responsible” historical practice was not necessarily shared by our predecessors. Is it any less anachronistic to judge long-ago generations of historians by our own contemporary professional standards than to judge historical actors by our own contemporary standards of morality?

Only with the death of positivism and the pursuit of “objectivity” in the first half of the twentieth century, did historians begin writing as though they were participating in a historiography. Men like George Bancroft and John Fiske in the nineteenth century were not writing a history of the United States, they were writing the history of the United States. We today value “accurate editorial work” because it is necessary for historians to engage with one another’s arguments and in the broader historiography. They, however, did not write as though their histories were subject to revision, as we all do today. And even after the turn of the twentieth century, professionalization necessarily bestowed an institutionalized sense of authority upon historians thereby setting them off from the lay society of its readership, for whom they tried to “refine” the experience by modernizing spelling, punctuation, and, yes, even phraseology.

I would hope that even the slightly careful reader will understand that I am not condoning the use of these practices in our contemporary context. That would be intellectually reprehensible. And Dr. Merrell’s call for not relying on older published sources is certainly justified, necessary, and, in retrospect, long overdue. However, we should also be wary of negatively characterizing historians of previous generations without reckoning with their own historical and professional contexts. In a sense, I am arguing that just as Dr. Merrell has called for “doing justice to the past” through rigorous editorial practice and preference for the original manuscript sources, we should also do “justice to the past” by recognizing that standards and contexts exist for historians as well as historical actors.

Roundtable Contributions:

5 responses

  1. This is a discussion that is very near to my heart having been a documentary editor for more than twenty years. Editors are always a product of their time and they will make decisions that are influenced by their own world view. Modern documentary editors are prone to criticize 19th century editions for their so-called “bowderlization” of texts: the regularizing of spellings, the elimination of possibly damaging or libelous material (something Thomas Jefferson’s grandson did in the first edition of TJ’s letters). But there’s something very valuable in being able to look at the history of documents through the lens of editors themselves. And any edition, now matter how far it strays from the original, can be useful as a means of discovering that text.
    Modern day editors are challenged to an every greater degree today as they try to deal with the complexity of markup (tagging) for print and digital editions. Before digital editions, the decisions editors sometimes made about transcription were in some cases, guided by issue of presentation in the print realm. Now editors must think harder about the materiality of the text: the watermarks, the deletions and additions, the changes in handwriting (i.e. scribes). Transcription is both art and science. No two editors will transcribe a single text the same way. This is something historians must always keep in mind. If an argument hinges on the document, then it is worth looking at both transcription (enhances findability) and the original (underscores the interpretation). As a community we should aim to unite transcribed edited texts with the original manuscript material so that we can have the best of both worlds.

  2. I second Sue’s conclusion that when making an argument based on a particular document, it’s necessary to see the original if at all possible. The main issue I have found with nineteenth century publications is broader than what Merrell points out–published letters and diaries as well as published versions of congressional debates and government correspondence (e.g. American State Papers) often excise large amounts of text or selectively publish sections of a collection without alerting the reader. That unquestionably impacts how we understand documents, probably more so than mistakes in transcription.

  3. At least some of those transcribing texts in the early 19th century appear to have been well aware of the utility of retaining errors in spelling, odd capitalization of words, lack of punctuation, etc. – the Force manuscripts present many simple soldiers’ diaries ( transcribed in various ‘hands’ ) clearly show thought in this sense. As an historian who has also worked with literary texts and uses structural analysis to seek out ‘mindset’ and self perception in the really rich written material left by ordinary participants in the revolutionary war and the constitutional period which followed it, I have often had occasion to discuss the possibilities such texts afford. Equally interesting are the minutes of the periodic treaty meetings between indians and colonists in the first half of the 18th century, published at the time by Franklin, where the ‘orality’ can be ‘heard’ in many instances though the original script is again lost, offering hints on the mentality of the Five Nation participants that are unique..

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