". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Grit of Scholarship Under My Nails

What a series of humid and dreary days here, while the west continues a conflagration.

Have spent Monday and Tuesday in the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives
Room of Columbia University's Butler Library -- which MarLi designated scholars can do here in  NYC.  Speak of grit, despite the mandatory little white gloves for handling photos and other fragile materials, my hands and wrists still feel all -- gritty, from the acid paper crumbs. I went to wash them more than once, but as all my supplies beyond notebook, pencil and laptop were locked in a locker, no lotion.  This morning my hands still feel dried out and a little scratchy. Not to mention my eyes.  It could be worse though, as typewriters and typists were the rule by the time Frederic Bancroft was working.  But all his sidenotes, editorial commentary are hand written in the most tiny of calligraphy and with the finest of ink nibs. Next time I have to bring a magnifying glass.

The Frederic Bancroft archival boxes are in offsite storage (he, the extraordinary historian who wrote Slave Trading in the Old South, which was published in 1930. This work, without which no one can claim to be doing proper research into U.S. Slavery now, is filled with the interviews of  those who were still alive from antebellum days -- former slaves, traders, men on the street, etc. -- and with his own meticulous statistical work.  There was nothing like Slave Trading in the Old South before he published the work.  There could never that work after either, because those who lived it were dead.

It turns out there is a whole other book in his papers, one that has never been published, one no one has mentioned. It doesn't even have an actual title, but it is an actual book.  Could it be true that no one's ever looked at these papers since very early days, and not since the explosion in studies of American slavery? Could I have discovered this?  That cannot be, surely.

On the corner of one his ms in progress folders is written in blue pencil, Old South.  Was that a working title? It's more than worthy of publication today  He's such a good writer, both clear as water and vivid as an historical novel.  This isn't the statistical study that Slave Trading in the Old South is.

There is a box of personal photos, including those of him with President McKinley in the Carolina Sea Islands, with other famous people of his time. There's another of him on the 1913 anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, at Gettysburg.  He endowed the most coveted award for history in the U.S., the Bancroft Prize, at Columbia University. Yet, historians, at least until the 1960's, dismissed his work as of minor interest. It's hard to find out anything about him, because, as one of the very few essays about him that has come down says, "F. Bancroft was not an historian of note."  That rocks me back on my heels.

I've been trying to find out who his father was.  Could he have been George Bancroft, father of American History?  There's a book that has a short biography of Frederic Bancroft in NYU's Bobst catalog, but it is offsite, like all the interesting books, so I am going to have to wait until at least next week to find out.

F. Bancroft was central in those circles 19th and early 20th historians -- all of them, like him, deeply connected politically and with independent or very good fortunes, like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams, to make of history a profession, particularly American history. They tended to toggle between writing and teaching history / and a political life, again, like Roosevelt and John Hay (he was the younger of Abraham Lincoln's two private secretaries, and John G. Nicolay, the older secretary, did the same thing, but as Nicolay didn't marry an heiress like Hay did, merely the well off Therena Bates, he toggled more between money-making journalism and politics).

In any case, in the course of The American Slave Coast, I've become
fascinated with all those early scholars and historians, politicians, literary writers and other historical figures, whose name recognition didn't make it into the pantheon. Considering what F. Bancroft's work was, we suspect the gatekeepers of American History and the Civil War, deliberately kept F. Bancroft out. He was working during the most virulent, smug self-satisfactions of neo-confederate revisionism,  white supremacy, bigotry and the Glorious Lost Cause sentimentalism we bathed in until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Wilson was POTUS, Owen Wister's The Virginian, and D.W. Griffith ruled.  Bancroft's research was antagonist to the comfortable national narrative they'd constructed about slavery, the south, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Grant.

The minor figures of history, arts and letters often illuminate more clearly the days in which they wrote than the enshrined figures, as do the defeated in a war.  I'd love to do a book about the run-up  to the Civil War and the aftermath of the rewriting of that history, i.e. how the south won until the Civil Rights Movement, through the writers of the eras.

Unfortunately, archives and special collections' chairs and tables are anti-ergonomic, though they are all wired for electronic devices and internet (which wasn't true when I first began working in archives and special collections). In this soupy air, without sun, humidity rather than heat, I am hurting so badly I can't go back today. Damn!

I was shaken reading this morning about the U.S.'s highjack of the  President of Bolivia's plane.  That's what nations were doing back in the 18th and earlier 19th centuries. Those actions created wars -- see both the War of Independence and the War of 1812, and so many others. Evidently we feel safe executing an act of war upon a South American nation even now. Yet we repeat the same damned bathosations and platitudes about the War of Independence, on and on and, despite scholarship having proven the comfy bs to be just that, bs.

I hope you have an enjoyable July 4th.  We'll be here, just writing. And doing laundry. :)

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