Sunday, December 13, 2015

Writing history is easy, and it's not easy. (And by history, I also mean biography -- since that's personal history.)

The easy part is getting a rough outline or story. An obituary or a couple paragraphs in a book somewhere can give you the basic structure you need to expand upon. Someone, somewhere, already knows enough about John Doe or "the day the X happened" that they can just toss off a few paragraphs and get the basic information out there. If you want to know about something, that sort of information is readily available.

The hard part is in the details. Take biography: John Doe was born in 1886, graduated from Harvard, was a lawyer for many years, served on a government commission, quit, taught at Chicago, served on a state commission, wrote a critically-acclaimed book, retired in 1945, died in 1965.

Where was he born? To whom? What did his parents do? What religion or ethnicity were they? Did he have siblings? How many?  Was he the oldest?  The youngest?  Public or private school? Did he graduate? What were the influences in his life? What was his undergraduate major? How long did it take him to graduate? Did he immediately go to law school afterward, or not? When did he graduate with his law degree? How many years did he practice? Where did he practice? What was the nature of his practice? Did he marry? Who did he marry? What was her background? Did they have children, and if so how many? What were their names, ages, and genders?

Biography is, in many ways, a form of statistics. We want to know the early facts about someone, because we assume or imply that those facts had an influence on the person and what they did later in life. We make assumptions about people based on the time and place they lived, and when they don't meet those expectations we assume there is a reason why and that those reasons will be important to the person's development later on. "Jane Doe was born in Boston in 1835 but never married." Really? In a day and age when nearly all women married, that's unusual. Was Jane a lesbian? Perhaps Jane was mentally unbalanced. Perhaps Jane was so dedicated to her poetry that she refused to marry. Maybe Jane was the only daughter of a wealthy man, and had no need to marry for financial security (like most women). The answers can be varied, and have a big impact on who Jane Doe is.

History, too, contains details that matter and which we assume will have an impact on the story. A great example is Kevin Boyle's book, Arc of Justice. The book tells the true story of Ossian Sweet, an African American physician who moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, in 1925. A mob surrounded his home a few weeks later, and for nearly two days terrorized the Sweet home. On the third day, the mob threw stones at the house. Two shots from the upstairs window rang out: One white man was killed, another slightly wounded. Eight of the 11 African American people in the house, including Ossian and his wife, were charged with murder. A lengthy trial ended in a hung jury; a second lengthy trial ended in acquittal for Sweet's elderly father. After weeks of waiting, prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges. Sweet never returned to his home. His daughter contracted tuberculosis while in jail, and died a year later. His wife got the disease, too, separated from Ossian, and died two years later. Ossian Sweet suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, abandoned the practice of medicine, failed at several businesses, and committed suicide in 1960

Boyle has talked about how he tried hard to figure out what the neighborhood was like when Sweet moved in. Typical of Detroit, the largely working-class neighborhood didn't even have a name: The "Marina District" and "Gold Coast" were to the south. "West Village" was to the southeast. "Grosse Pointe Park" was across Conner Creek to the east. "Ravendale" was north. The "East Grand Avenue Historic District" was to the west. But Sweet's neighborhood? Nameless. Huge and nameless. Nameless because the poor lived there, but not so destitute, gang-ridden, and filled with disease and filth that it would become a Hell's Bottom or Anacostia. So what was this place like? Why would it generate a mob? Boyle had his researchers combed land title records to discover when the area was platted, and when the homes there were built. He learned that most of the homes in the area were almost new, having been built between 1900 and 1925. He also learned that almost all the homes in the area were "Craftsman Bungalow" designs: Two-story, two-bedroom brick homes with a front porch, screened sunroom in rear, central dormer in front, and shingles on the upper floor. Small yard front and back, and side gravel driveway. They were uniform and cheap, but solidly constructed -- meant for lower-income white families.

So who lived there? Tradition said the neighborhood was mostly white, but was it? Boyle looked at home sales records and discovered that most of the original buyers were of Western European stock. They moved out between 1918 and 1922, and that most of the new buyers had Eastern or Southern European names. A little research indicated that most of these new buyers were immigrants to the United States, not yet naturalized citizens. Census records showed that as many as three generations were living in a single home, and that income levels were low. Records from nearby churches indicated that most were Orthodox, not English-speaking Roman Catholics or Protestants. Community meetings calendars from the local newspaper indicated that there had been little community organizing, but that this markedly increased after the Sweets moved into the neighborhood (an indication that the community was organizing against them). Foreclosure records also showed that a number of homes in the area had been seized by banks, which meant the local community was under economic pressure and that many residents may have felt angry that a "rich black family" could afford what they no longer could.

And that constitutes just the first couple of pages of the first chapter.

Boyle did a massive amount of legwork for his book. It later won the National Book Award (justifiably so).

I don't do that kind of original research. (I've often thought about it, though.) I don't have the time, or the money.  Trying to locate published research is hard enough. Just locating someone's birth date, or parents' names, is often rather difficult unless there's been a published biography of the individual already. Generally, I find that you have to do a lot of gleaning in order to figure these things out. A man's wife's name might be mentioned in passing in a much longer work about his career. In such cases, you can not only discover that he was married, but what her name was. Someplace else, you might discover her first and maiden name mentioned in a geneology about her much-more-famous grandfather -- which lets you know her social status, background, and perhaps how old she was when she married.

The hard part comes when you have to infer things from items mentioned in passing. Lots of obituaries, biographies, and studies of law mention that attorney Harold I. Cammer founded the National Lawyers Guild. But under what circumstances? On what date? What was his role in this? Who else was involved? That's never mentioned (insofar as I can determine), and yet this was not only the first racially-integrated bar association in the U.S. but was also (and still is) a major player in using the law as a means of advancing social and economic justice. It was brutally attacked in the 1950s for being a Soviet-controlled "communist front" group (utterly false accusations), and more recently by morons like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh for being a "treasonous" organization. But for all that, little is known (or published, at any rate) about its founding.

When you are writing about history or biography, one-off mentions can't stand alone with a single citation to back them up. You have to have a bunch of them supporting that claim, if you don't want someone to challenge you. Even then, I often wonder........ I mean, book publishers almost never check the facts in their author's books. Did you know that? Most people assume that publishers do, but they don't. And the most egregious claims get made! Far too often, I think people merely copy phrases and facts out of previously published works. (Try using Google Books some day to test this theory. Pick a phrase out of an existing work of history or biography. Copy and paste, and do a search in Google Books on that phrase. You'll find it repeated almost word-for-word in many other books from different authors.) I worry that just because five different authors say "Ms. Smith founded XYZ Organization" -- it might not be so. They copy too much from one another.

The details of history are hard, too, not just because it is difficult to dig up facts. It's hard because anyone writing about history runs into roadblocks. Say you're writing about an economist who joined a key group of people that helped redevelop downtown. She joined the group in 1965, quit in 1975, and did all these great things. But when did that group form? When was she asked to join it? When did she formally join it? Was there an appointment process, a confirmation process, or something else? What was her participation in the organization like? Did she sit on the back bench, or take an active role? Did she do things on her own with that organization? (Did she herself stand up at a press conference and demand action, or did she herself intervene with the mayor and move something forward, or was she herself the spokesperson for the group?) Or did she mostly engage in group things? (She joined with everyone in signing a letter, joined with everyone in deciding to incur a debt, joined with everyone in deciding to issue a study.) When did she decide to leave? For what reason? What formal date was her last with the group?

These things are all important. They not only give the reader an idea of what her role was, but they help in many other ways. For example:  Far too often, you read a biography that says "Mr. Smith left the group in 1986." And then in some other context you read "In 1986, everyone in the group was found to have embezzled funds from the bank. The scheme started six months ago." Mr. Smith wasn't charged. Did that mean he got away with embezzlement? Did he know about the scam? Specificity can matter in these things. What if you'd read "Mr. Smith left the group on January 5, 1986. On December 15, 1986, everyone in the group was found to have committed embezzlement. The scheme started six months ago." Now you can make inferences. Now you can infer that the embezzlement came after Smith's departure, and he probably knew nothing about it. (A good historian will go further, and actually try to determine what Smith knew and when he knew it, so the reader won't have to infer.)

Far, far too often, history writing is replete with vaguesness like that. And yet, pinning down those dates, times, places, names, and more can prove daunting.

But you have to overcome that.  It's important, even if you aren't talking about some crime. You never know what the reader's needs are. Maybe it's enough for the reader to know "Jane Doe left in 1970." But maybe not. It's better to be thorough than to be vague.

Then, too, there's the issue of just how much backstory the reader needs. Any more, I don't think a writer can assume that his readers know very much at all. You can't just say "Steve Jobs founded a personal computer company in 1981." Most people don't know that the PC did not really exist before 1975. Most readers assume Apple Computer has been there for forever and ever. They don't realize that the company was brand-new and almost bankrupt until it came out with the Macintosh computer in early 1984. (They probably don't even know about Apple's fantastic "1984" commercial -- which had the entire United States in an uproar, even though it only aired once.) More and more, I think historians have to add a lot more backstory, and that backstory has to be just as precise, detailed, and sourced as the primary story being told.

I did a relatively small bio of someone on Wikipedia the other day. I realized that it only took me a few hours to get basic story done. But it took me another three days of work to flesh it out, another three more days to cite it, and another week to get the backstory, flesh out the backstory, and cite the backstory.

Thank god this is a hobby I can work on whenever I want. If I had to do this for deadline, I'd be burned out.

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