Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The final problem

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In 1966, Howard L. Applegate, an administrator for the science fiction manuscript collection at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he would be interested in donating his papers. Campbell replied that he no longer possessed most of the original files, and he concluded: “Sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!” Fortunately for me, this statement wasn’t totally true—I’ve spent the last two years combing through thousands of pages of letters, magazines, and other documents to assemble a picture of Campbell’s life, and if anything, there’s more here than any one person can absorb. I haven’t read it all, but I feel confident that I’ve looked at more of it than anyone else alive, and I often relate to what Robin W. Winks writes in his introduction to the anthology The Historian as Detective:

Historians pose to themselves difficult, even impossibly difficult, questions. Since they are reasonably intelligent and inquiring and since they do not wish to spend their lives upon a single question or line of investigation, they normally impose a time limit upon a given project or book (or the time limit is imposed for them by a “publish or perish” environment). They will invariably encounter numerous unforeseen difficulties because of missing papers, closed collections, new questions, and tangential problems; and the search through the archive, the chase after the single hoped-to-be-vital manuscript, has an excitement of its own, for that dénouement, the discovery, an answer may—one always hopes—lie in the next folio, in the next collection, in the next archive.

My work is more modest in scale than that of most academic historians, but I can understand the importance of a deadline, the hope that the next page that I read will contain a crucial piece of information, and the need for impossible questions. When I first got my hands on the microfilm reels of Campbell’s letters, I felt as if I’d stumbled across a treasure trove, and I found a lot of fascinating material that I never would have discovered otherwise. As I worked my way through the images, one inch at a time, I kept an eye on how much I had left, and as it dwindled, I felt a sinking feeling at the thought that I might never find certain answers. In fact, I never did resolve a few important issues to my satisfaction—although perhaps that wasn’t the right way to approach this particular Nachlass. In his introduction, Winks draws a telling contrast between the American and the European schools of history:

With sufficient diligence American historians can expect to find the answer—or at least an answer—to most factual or non-value questions they may choose to put to themselves. As a result, American researchers tend to begin with the questions they wish to entertain first (Did failed farmers truly move West to begin life anew in the eighteen-forties? Did immigrants reinforce older patterns of life or create new ones?), confident that the data can be found. European historians, on the other hand, are likely to begin with the available source materials first, and then look to see what legitimate questions they might ask of those sources. (Here are the private papers of Joseph Chamberlain, or of Gladstone, or of Disraeli. What do they tell me of British polities? Of Queen Victoria? Of the Jameson Raid? Of the development of British tariff policy? Of Colonial affairs? Of Ireland?)

Winks’s point is that American scholars have the advantage when it comes to sources, since there are vast archives available for every state with materials dating back to their founding. In writing about the history of science fiction, which is its own country of the mind, I’ve found that the situation is closer to what he says about European historiography. I’m far from the first person to explore this material, and I’m astounded by the diligence, depth of experience, and mastery of the facts of the fans I’ve met along the way, who have saved me from countless mistakes. In some areas, I’ve also been fortunate enough to build on the efforts of previous scholars, like Sam Moskowitz, whose book The Immortal Storm was accurately described by the fan historian Harry Warner, Jr.: “If read directly after a history of World War II, it does not seem like an anticlimax.” (I’m similarly grateful for the work of the late William H. Patterson, who did for Heinlein what I’m hoping to do for Campbell, thereby relieving me of much of the necessity of going over the same ground twice.) But there were also times at which I had to start with the available resources and see what they had to offer me. A lot of it was tedious and unrewarding, as detective work undoubtedly is in the real world. As Winks writes:

Much of the historian’s work, then, like that of the insurance investigator, the fingerprint man, or the coroner, may to the outsider seem to consist of deadening routine. Many miles of intellectual shoe leather will be used, for many metaphorical laundry lists, uninformative diaries, blank checkbooks, old telephone directories, and other trivia will stand between the researcher and his answer. Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue may be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.

And the real point of asking a question is less the possibility of an answer than the motivation that it provides for you to keep digging. Winks nicely evokes the world in which the historian lives:

Precisely because the historian must turn to all possible witnesses, he is the most bookish of men. For him, no printed statement is without its interest. For him, the destruction of old cookbooks, gazetteers, road maps, Sears Roebuck catalogues, children’s books, railway timetables, or drafts of printed manuscripts, is the loss of potential evidence. Does one wish to know how the mail-order business was operated or how a Nebraska farmer might have dressed in 1930? Look to those catalogues. Does one wish to know whether a man from Washington just might have been in New York on a day in 1861 when it can be proved that he was in the capital on the day before and the day after? The timetables will help tell us of the opportunity.

But it’s only with a specific question in mind that the historian—or biographer—will bother to seek out such arcana at all, and you’re often rewarded with something that has nothing to do with the reasons why you originally looked. (Sometimes you find it on the other side of the page.) Every setback that I’ve encountered in search of a specific piece of information has opened new doors, and a question is simply the story that we tell ourselves to justify the search. The image that I like to use isn’t a private eye, but the anonymous reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, whose boss, the shadowy Mr. Rawlston, tells him to solve the mystery of Kane’s last words: “See ‘em all! Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts. I don’t mean go through the city directory, of course.” But that’s what you wind up doing. And as I near the end of this book, I’m haunted by what Rawlston says just before we cut to the lightning flash that illuminates the face of Susan Alexander: “It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

2 Responses

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  1. Shirer’s hoeing through the Nazi archives — they kept _everything_ — boggles the mind.


    September 21, 2017 at 6:27 am

  2. @Darren: Sometimes I just look through Shirer’s endnotes. They inspire me to work harder.


    October 14, 2017 at 8:49 pm

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