Gunlord’s Dissertation Saga, Episode 3: A Shadow Looms

It’s been one week here at Washington, and I’ve been keeping reasonably busy. You could say I’ve been productive…though that hasn’t necessarily translated to my dissertation being closer to completion, at least as close as I’d like…

Well, first the good news: My time at the Library of Congress has proven that all the Frederick Douglass Papers are online for free…except for 2 boxes. I commissioned a duplication of those last two boxes and it should arrive within a reasonable timeframe. So I’m definitely glad for that 8)

Now, the…well, some bad, some ambiguous news.

First, some of the stuff I’m looking for is much harder to find than I first thought. I wanted to get some letters from George Fitzhugh that should have been in the Freedman’s Bureau records at the National Archives. I even had the exact citation from Harvey Wish’s biography of the guy:

Orders of the Richmond Freedmen’s Court, October 28, 1865 to March 9, 1866; letter of T.P.A. Bibb and Fitzhugh, August 9, 1866, in Letters Received Book of the Assistant Commissioner for Virginia (1866), Freedmen’s Bureau Collection (The National Archives)

With that in hand, I figured it’d be easy-peasy to find the right microfilm roll and Fitzhugh’s letters. Alas, it was not to be! See, Wish wrote that biography a loooong time ago, before WWII (which meant before microfilm). So when the National Archives folks microfilmed the Letters Received Book, they did some reorganizing. Some of the letters are on a roll labeled “Unregistered letters,” and others in a roll labeled “Registered”. Naturally, I don’t know whether Fitzhugh’s letters were in the “Registered” or “Unregistered” microfilm roll, and…neither did the archivists. ;_;

So it’d take me a lot longer to go through the microfilm reels painstakingly to see if the letters I’m looking for are in one pile or the other, and making things worse is the organization! Sometimes the letters are organized alphabetically, other times by date, and they’re all in 19th century cursive, which is difficult to read under the best of circumstances. Not all was lost, though. Looking closer at Wish’s citations, it seems that Fitzhugh wrote about his experiences with the Freedman’s Bureau in DeBow’s Review, which is muuuuch easier to find, being a preserved Southern periodical available online. So unless the articles in De Bow’s Review end up being entirely useless, I think I’ll concentrate on them rather than the National Archives microfilm.

The same concerns inform a lot of the other sources I’d hoped to have looked at. The records of the American Missionary Society and American Colonization Society are expansive and mostly in very hard to read handwriting, and the citations I’ve received from the relevant books (Martin Pasternak’s biography of Henry Highland Garnet) don’t mention which specific microfilm reel they’re in! So it’ll take me a good deal longer than I anticipated to find the relevant microfilm reels if (and that’s a big if!) I manage to decipher the handwriting.

Making matters slightly worse is that I’ve found out that a lot of the Library of Congress material that *is* digitized and relatively easy to read (printed periodicals) can only be accessed on site! Apparently, the guys who digitized it only allow you to look at the stuff in the library of congress buildings themselves, despite the papers having been scanned and uploaded online, where they should be available to anyone with Internet access. No, you can only access them through the Library of Congress wifi, and that’s only available in the LoC buildings. I’ll have to ask if there’s any other way to get a LoC connection, or if they’re available on my Yale connection too…otherwise I’ll just have to cram and save as much stuff from the newspapers as possible before I leave in 9 days.

So yeah, I’m a little discouraged, though all this alone wouldn’t be enough to make me think everything is entirely hopeless. I have quite a while before that happens, though some more theoretical/organizational concerns that have popped up recently. Let me describe them.

First, I’ve become aware of a book that *sorta* does what I’m doing. “The Debate Over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America” by David Ericson selects and compares some abolitionist writers and proslavery writers (including Douglass, Fitzhugh, and Hammond), especially in regards to their rhetoric. Sounds pretty close to my project, right?

his smile and optimism--gone

Thankfully–VERY thankfully–the book’s approach is different from my own. It focuses on political ideology (namely, liberalism) while my project focuses on the portrayal of the “head of the household,” so I think Ericson’s work will complement my own rather than supplanting it. Still, it was definitely quite a, um, ‘surprise.’ I’ll definitely need to get my hands on it ASAP and see what it says…

More abstractly, now that I’ve done some more research, there are some pretty big discrepancies in the material I have to work with. Frederick Douglass and George Fitzhugh have left the most material behind on the ‘head of household’ figure/metaphor by far, followed by Dabney and Delany, and lastly by Hammond and Garnet. Those discrepancies are interesting by themselves–why did Douglass and Fitzhugh talk so much about the head of household, compared to their fellows and contemporaries? but a lack of sources is definitely something to be concerned about. At this point, it’s not *too* troubling; maybe I’ll find a lot of better stuff in the AMA/Colonization Society Papers if I really look through them and manage to decipher the handwriting, or find a bounty of those guys talking about the ‘head of household’ in a paper I haven’t looked at yet. But on the other hand, it’s also possible I’ll spend hours digging through the archives and coming up with nothing. Even if writings by those guys are lying there waiting to be discovered, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be relevant to my dissertation as opposed to, say, ruminations on financial stuff or religious work or whatever that would be great for another project, but not this one. D:

Ehh, so what to do, what to do…well, I’d better talk to my advisors, they might be able to help me. Also, one thing I really want to do is start drafting. Maybe not actually writing is putting me into a funk. Maybe I can come up with a super rough draft based on what materials I have been able to acquire so far, which I’ll show to my advisors, and they can give me suggestions on what stuff to look for. That might focus my search and keep me from spending hours and hours poring through archives I don’t end up using. ;o


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