As I promised last week, an update on my dissertation progress, friends! The nice thing is I got permission from my advisors to talk a little more about what exactly is I’m doing. They told me to be cautious, since this is a public blog and they don’t want anyone ripping off my stuff, so I’ll be coy about what my thesis will actually be. But I can give you a brief summary of what my project is (the same one I’ve given to friends and acquaintances IRL who’ve asked me).
My project deals with 19th century United States intellectual history, as well as the history of that period’s political culture. Essentially, I’ll be looking at three African American abolitionists active during this time: Martin Delaney, Henry Highland Garnet, and of course the super-famous Frederick Douglass, and compare parts of their rhetoric to that used by three white proslavery activists: R.L. Dabney (an influential clergyman), James Hammond (a Senator), and George Fitzhugh (a very prolix sociologist). The specific aspect of their rhetoric I’ll be examining is how they portrayed the figure of the “head of household”–i.e the husband and father–in their attempts to attack and justify slavery.
That’s all I’ll say for now, partially because while I’ve got some pretty firm ideas about what I’ll be arguing and what my conclusions will be, I know they could change as I continue my research, so I don’t want to commit to anything yet. But I can be more specific about what my plans are! From December 6 to 20–that is, two days from now–I’ll be staying in Washington D.C. to study at the Library of Congress. There are a bunch of sources I want to get a hold of, and I also want to ask the librarians and archivists there if they know of any more sources–because a historian can never have enough!
So, my plan for about the next two weeks will be:
1: Pack up some stuff, first off. Aside from my laptop, I need to take some books with me to the LoC, namely a couple of secondary texts-some biographies of Hammond, Fitzhugh, Dabney, Delany, and Garnet, so I can so librarians there the footnotes in these books to see if they can point me to the specific archives I’m looking for. The nice thing about secondary sources is that they can give me some guidance about the stuff I want to find–for instance, rather than trawling through over 9000 microfilm reels about “The Antebellum South,” a footnote in a Hammond biography can tell me there’s a James Henry Hammond collection at the LC, and I only have to look through 5 microfilm reels over there. The same applies to the National Archives, where I also hope to go to.
2: Prepare lists of questions for the librarians and archivists. There are a few other things I need to know that they might help me with: Are there any archives I may have missed aside from the Library of Congress and the other ones I already checked out? How many of their resources have been digitized and can be accessed off-site? That sort of thing.
3: Discern how much it would cost to reproduce the microfilm/sources I need, if necessary. As I mentioned above, I’m only going to be in Washington for two weeks; more intense and comprehensive work would take longer than that. However, those two weeks should give me enough time to scope out the archives and find specific things I need, allowing me to spend maybe a few thousand dollars reproducing them and taking them back home with me as opposed to many thousands. If I really have to stay there, however, of course I’ll go back home and then make preparation for a longer stay at the LoC for months. Still, I’m “registered in absentia” in my grad program and I’d rather spend more time at home that at hotels and lodgings in other places. True historians are somewhat of a peripatetic breed, since they have to wander near and far to access all the archives they need for research, but I figure I can cut myself a little slack since I live in an age of digitization. It’s cheaper for me to digitize materials and work on them at my own home, rather than additionally paying for hotel and travel fees. In this case, though, I wanted to spend some time there personally to ask librarians questions, but not so long as to shell out the big bux a stay of several months would cost.
4: The LC isn’t open 24/7, so I will be spending time in my hotel room, of course. During that time, I’ll look through some of the primary sources I’ve already gotten! Several universities, such as the University of Virginia, have already digitized collections of things like Dabney’s letters for me. 😀
Then, on the 20th, when I come home…after that, we’ll see. I may have to make a trip back to my uni to read some things personally if they can’t digitize things for me. Then I might have to go to the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia to do the same. But I might get lucky with those, depending on how much reading I manage to do at DC. Maybe I can even start drafting early! 😀
Even if I can’t, it’s no big deal. I’m in my 4th year, and I’d like to finish by my sixth, but if it’s *absolutely* necessary I can take a 7th year. Hopefully not, as it’s highly encouraged to finish everything up by the 6th year, especially financially, but it’s relieving to know there’s a *bit* of wiggle room. That’s the nice thing about completing one’s dissertation rather than studying for orals; indeed, why they say you’re ABD (All But Dissertation) after passing the orals. While a dissertation is definitely tough, and you shouldn’t dilly-dally around with it (my advisors say to get one concrete thing done on it AT LEAST every day), it’s not quite as high-pressure as oral exams are. For those, not only do you have to cram hundreds of books within a space of months, but you also don’t know exactly what the questions will be (though as I said, if your questioners are very nice like mine were, you’ll have tons of pre-warning and there won’t be any surprises :D). With the dissertation, however, since *you’re* the one writing it, you feel like you have more control, and it feels more like a journey you’re taking on your own than a gauntlet you have to pass.
And with that, I must continue preparations for my journey. I might not update for the next two fridays cause I’ll be away, but *maybe* I’ll be able to. If not, I’ll try to prepare a big update about my adventures in DC 😀 Wish me luck, and until then, stay well! ❤