Update #2 on “Letters” Citation Flap

21 12 2009

I received some unexpected – and unsolicited - correspondence when I got home from the gym yesterday.  Here, and subsequently here, I linked to and discussed with my readers certain details of an article written by another blogger.  One of the authors involved in the issue took the time to send me an email clarifying his position.  I’ve reproduced the note and our subsequent exchanges below, but let me summarize the key point:

The author asserts that the specific LOC documents (microfilm images of what George B. McClellan described as “excerpts” of subsequently destroyed correspondence between himself and his wife) can in fact be located using the references cited by Prof. James McPherson in his notes to the essay in question.

[Please follow the links in this and the linked articles - you won't be able to follow along otherwise]

———-

Mr. Smeltzer,

While I don’t want to unduly prolong this tempest in a teapot, there is something you should know about Rotov’s latest assault on McPherson (and Rotov’s latest misinformation about my edition of McClellan’s papers).

Rotov got off on McPherson’s notes to his McClellan essay in Waugh’s & Gallagher’s Wars Within a War in which McP writes that his quotes from McClellan’s letters to his wife are taken from the McClellan Papers in the LC–which letters, he says, can be conveniently found in my “superbly edited” edition of McClellan correspondence (you see that I’m flattered by the plug from a Pulitzer Prize winner). What McP says here about his research is exactly correct.

McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom was published in 1988. In it he quotes from McClellan’s Letters to his wife (from the general’s letterbook in the LC Papers, not Prime’s bastardized versions in McClellan’s Own Story), including the very October 1861 letter Rotov is crowing about. My edition of McClellan’s Civil War correspondence was published in 1989–one year later. So McP’s “plagiarizing” from me is simply nonsense.

McP did his research (just as he says) in the McClellan manuscripts at the LC. If it was after 1973, he could have used the LC microfilm, where, as I have pointed out in my corrective to Rotov, the general’s lettebook (in his own handwriting) is easily found. Among Civil War scholars there is nothing secret about this letterbook; it has been known and used by every serious writer since its first published use in 1934.

The fact of the matter is that Dimitri Rotov has an agenda, certainly when it comes to his hero George McClellan. That includes repeatedly implying that I have “cooked the books” when it comes to McClellan’s correspondence. On that score at least I intend continuing to correct him. I won’t comment on his McPherson agenda beyond what is noted here.

Any questions or puzzlements, let me know. I’m a great admirer of your blog.

Best regards, Stephen Sears

———-

Mr. Sears,
 
Thanks for the note and the compliment.  Would you object to my adding your note to the comments section of my blog post that links to the Civil War Bookshelf article, or to putting it up on Bull Runnings as a separate post updating my earlier one?
 
Harry

———-

Harry (if I may),

Sure, do as you like. I’m strictly a bystander when it comes to blogging; yet, like your correspondent Dave Powell, I’m happy to go on record–especially when it comes to accurately documenting all things McClellan.

Stephen

———-

Stephen,
 
Two quick questions before I post your note.  I have never seen the McClellan papers in the LOC, so I only have the words of others to go by.  Can the letters be found in the LOC as referred to by McPherson?  That is, if he says “see letter dated x from McClellan to wife”, can a person, with no other reference, find that letter in the LOC?  Can a person even find a transcription of a purported letter using that reference alone? 
 
I will say that experience has shown me that very, very few enthusiasts who have read McClellan’s letters to his wife in your edition of his correspondence are aware that the letters themselves have not existed for over 100 years, even though your notes are clear on this.  The overarching perception is that what appears in your book are simple transcriptions of existing, original documents.
 
Harry

———-

Harry,
   
Without making this a lengthy tutorial, the simple answer to your question about finding something in the McClellan Papers LC is yes, it can be done–and it’s no harder than finding something in any large ms. collection. Dimitri is just blowing smoke here.
   
The McClellan Papers comprise 33,000 items, on 82 reels of microfilm. It reached the LC in two donations (by the McClellans’ son), the first being essentially the general’s papers held in the US; the second, Mrs. McClellan’s holdings at the Villa Antietam (!) where she lived in the south of France, donated after her death in 1915. The two donations were not co-mingled, but are arranged in four series.

The Library has a finding aid, and at the beginning of each microfilm reel (what a researcher uses at the LC; I have my own set, of course) is a table of contents of the collection.

McClellan’s letters to his wife are actually the easiest to find of anything in the Papers, contrary to Dimitri’s ranting. In the table of contents, under Series C, you will find “Extracts of Letters to Wife, 1861-62,” Volume C-7 of reel 63. Scroll through 63 to C-7 and you find a letterbook bearing the heading, in McClellan’s handwriting, “Extracts from letters written to my wife during the War of the Rebellion, [signed] Geo B. McClellan.” The extracts (not notes, as Dimitri tries to call them) that follow, all in McClellan’s hand, are copied and sequenced by date. Before my 1989 publication of McClellan’s Civil War correspondence, anyone of any intelligence could locate these letters–and did, among them Allan Nevins, Bruce Catton–and James McPherson.

As I clearly state in the introduction to my McClellan Papers book, in the epilogue of my McClellan biography (1988), and in various articles (and in my exchanges with Dimitri), the general himself copied these extracts from his original wartime letters to Ellen into this letterbook as an aid to his memoir-writing in the mid 1870′s. From their contents, it is obvious he copied the meat of these letters, excluding personal matter. After McC’s death his literary executor William Prime found the letterbook, had the McClellan’s daughter May copy from the original letters more personal matter that “humanized” her father, and then published them in severely censored and cropped form in “McClellan’s Own Story.”

Mrs. McClellan, who had moved abroad after the general’s death, was surely appalled by this invasion of her privacy and (I believe, on good grounds) destroyed the original letters.
   
So we have, then, General McClellan’s own copies, in his handwriting, of his wartime letters to his wife, supplemented by additional copies from the originals by his daughter (in her handwriting). In pre-copying machine days, what could possibly be more authentic? My contribution was to locate May McClellan’s copies (reel 72), carefully transcribe and combine the two sets of copies, and where necessary supply date and place of writing. What any editor would do.
   
It is important to remember that General McClellan included in these extracts what he considered the most important content of the original letters (just read them; it’s obvious). That should be worthy of our respect.
   
Well, this turned out to be a tutorial after all; sorry for that.

Stephen

———-

Stephen,
 
Thanks.  The answer to my question then is, yes, the microfilm copies of extracts or notes (it seems to me in a pure sense we can’t be sure what they are, since we have no originals for comparison – but you’ve made an educated or informed conclusion) can be found using the citations made by McPherson in the essay in question.
 
Thanks for the clarification.
 
Harry

———-

Harry,
   
This, I swear, will be my last. But I want to stress that these are not notes, but excerpts, just as McClellan termed them. It is a major distinction. His are copies of narrative letters, some of them two printed pages long. I don’t think there are any less than half a printed page long. McClellan himself assigned these full historical value, and we should respect that.

Enough said.

Stephen

———-

Stephen,
 
I agree, we should respect that.  As concerns the correspondence in question, what we have are what McClellan claimed were excerpts, in his hand.  In the absence of original documents, whether or not they actually are excerpts is subject to interpretation, not something that can be stated with certainty.  This is no reflection on the quality of your interpretation, but simply a statement of fact.
 
I do appreciate your taking the time to clarify your position here.  I’ll either post your original note, my questions, and your follow-ups as comments to the original article on Bull Runnings, or write a new update incorporating all of them.
 
Thanks for your time and interest, and thanks for reading Bull Runnings.
 
Enjoy the holidays,
 
Harry

Part I

Part II

Part IV

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15 responses

21 12 2009
Kevin

I have to admit that for someone who has no experience with the McClellan Papers this is incredibly difficult to follow. That said, I appreciate that Stephen Sears has taken the time to try to clarify Rotov’s posts. At the least, it would be nice if Rotov were to step back from his accusations of plagiarism against McPherson.

Thanks Harry for making this correspondence available.

21 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

To me it comes down to this: can the “excerpts” or “notes” in question be located solely using McP’s citations or, at least, could they have been located using those citations when McP viewed them? If so, he’s in the clear. I think that one thing is abundantly clear, and that is the McClellan papers in the LOC do not contain letters between McClellan and his wife for that period when he was in command of the AotP. They contain…something else. In the absence of the original documents I don’t know what to call them, but I would say they are less historically valid than the actual letters, and less valid than strict transcriptions. That’s not to say they are invalid, or less damning than the originals, or more damning than the originals. But they are what they are. I personally think that anyone using these “words”, for lack of a better term, should be aware of what he/she is using, and should make it clear to the reader what he/she is using and what the reader is reading. That’s something very rarely done when these “words” are used, so far as I have seen. I think Beatie made some kind of disclaimer. Other than him, I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head.

23 12 2009
Dimitri Rotov

The comments pages here have helped me understand how dense and opaque the issue is for readers. I hope today’s post at my site clarifies our respective positions. If I were going to express the situation mathematically, it would be

“Letter” = LoC notebook entry + May McClellan notes from separate LoC collection + dating by editor + editorial decisions and adjustments to texts.

May’s notes do not cover every notebook entry and some entries have dates, but that foruma is shorthand for what a “letter” represents.

I may have been unjust to McPherson and am rethinking his position – how he could honestly have gotten to Sears’ dates without citing Sears.

21 12 2009
Kevin

Dimitri could have raised this issue in a more constructive manner. He chooses to keep the comments closed, which is his prerogative, but he leaves himself vulnerable to charges of unfair play. According to Sears, McPherson could have consulted the LOC collections on his own – regardless of what we choose to call them. Thanks again.

21 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Yes, and as far as the charges of wrongdoing or sloppiness against McP go, I think that is the key issue as I stated in my response to your comment. Beyond that, however, I think scholars need to be clearer about what their sources are: not only their location, but their character, what they are. Referring to these “excerpts” as letters is, I think, not right.

21 12 2009
Terry Johnston

Harry:

I’m thinking the issue is basically settled now. It’s clear from Stephen’s posts that McPherson (or anyone who so desired) could (and in McPherson’s case, most assuredly did) locate / consult the excerpted McClellan letter in question at the LC. And, again per Stephen, it also seems clear that these documents in question should be considered excerpts of letters, not ‘notes.’

But to your larger point, I’m in full agreement. Folks citing from these excerpts would be wise to make clear their nature.

Terry

21 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Well, there’s still the issue of whether or not the citations can be followed in the papers – we have a he said/he said with that right now.

As for whether or not they are notes or excerpts, I don’t know if that’s clear either. If you read all the links, you’ll see a claim that the writings include cross-outs and what appear to be changes of content that may be more than just error correction. If that’s the case – and there’s no real way to be certain, is there? – then we have something other than simple “excerpts”.

You’re right concerning what I consider to be the larger point. But I think we’re not going to see any significant change in that regard. All sorts of wonderful rationalizations have been and will continue to be made as to why it’s perfectly OK to call these “things” letters.

21 12 2009
Terry Johnston

Harry:

Re: whether the citations can be followed, did Rotov say that they could not on the basis of personal experience? I can’t recall. But we do have Sears saying that they can. And we know Stephen’s very familiar with the collection, and has studied it up close (and extensively). In short, if Rotov has not personally been through the collection, or tried and failed to locate various of these citations on his own, then we don’t have he said / he said of real merit. If he has, that’s another story.

Re: notes vs. excerpts, I don’t recall all that was said about this in the links, and will gladly accept your description. Still, even if McClellan altered the excerpts he transcribed from his wartime letters, they are still excerpts. I’m not sure how Stephen handled this issue, but from a strict editorial standpoint, any such strike-throughs and additions to the letters should be addressed when reproducing / publishing them, either by preserving every word (struck through or not) or, up front, noting how all material intended to be struck by McClellan was left out of the transcribed versions of the excerpted letters.

Terry

21 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Yes, the blogger claims to have personally examined McClellan’s papers at the LOC and elsewhere.

21 12 2009
Terry Johnston

Well, then this might drag on some more. But to me, Sears’s explanation(s) are sufficient.

Let me second Kevin’s thanks for publishing your informative exchange with Sears. If only every such dispute could be handled with such civility and respect…

Terry

21 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

I was glad I was able, with permission, to reproduce the exchange here. When I get an email from a reader, I always get their permission before posting it here. Sometimes folks say in an email things they’d rather not say in a public forum. Such was not the case this time. I want all my readers to know that if they send me an email, they can expect me to not run it here without their permission.

22 12 2009
Dave Powell

Harry,

Thanks from me as well for the follow-up. This was quite interesting.

It does appear that Rotov’s criticism has been answered point by point – It might have been useful, for example, for him to check the respective publication dates before levelling his accusations.

As for the “letters” Sears does directly address the question in his Mac Bio, explaining where the letters come from, when they were copied, and why he thinks they are valid. Frankly, that seems pretty above-board to me, and easily discernable for anyone tracking either Sears’ or McPherson’s source material.

I still view this as a tempest in a teapot, and think Mr. Rotov is way off base.

Dave Powell

22 12 2009
Update #3 on “Letters” Citation Flap « Bull Runnings

[...] over yet.  See here for yet another update on the series of posts most recently updated here.  While I realize that some folks have made up their minds (some of whose minds were made up as [...]

23 12 2009
23 12 2009

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