Saturday, July 16, 2011

William T. Hornaday and the Uses of Personal Papers

Just getting back from a week in Washington spent in the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress's Madison Building. Unlike the absolutely stunning (and distracting, I would argue) main reading room in the Jefferson building, the manuscript room in the Madison building is

functional and plain. The staff was very helpful and knowledgable. I worked my way through two collections. First, the William T. Hornaday Papers, and, second, a much smaller piece of the Irving Brant Papers. Although remembered mostly for his authoratative biography of James Madison, Brant began his writing career as a free lance journalist. While researching an article on the Audubon Society he met Hornaday, fell under the older man's sway, and served as his lobbyist in Washington for several years in the early 1930s. Brant also wrote pamphlets for the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC), an organization directed by Rosalie Edge specializing in radical conservation pamphlets. The ECC echoed Hornaday's philosophy and he provided advice, moral support, and money. He also gave them information, something they as relative newcomers desperately needed.

And this leads me, by way of lengthy preamble, to the main point of this posting. As much as anyone possibly could, Hornaday consciously constructed a personal archive with the intent of influencing future generations. He genuinely believed that by 1950 only the English sparrow would survive and he wanted to record his efforts at trying to save wildlife, while, at the same time, finger the short sighted conservationists who refused to heed his warnings. Along the way he constructed many scrapbooks of letters, newspaper clippings (he hired a service to send him clippings from all over the country, an early version of RSS), magazine articles, congressional hearings and bills, etc. The most telling portions of the scrapbooks, are his hand written comments in the margins and along the tops of pages to inform intended readers of important developments. He found use of them in his own lifetime, such as when the young journalist Irving Brant needed information on the Audubon Society for an article he was writing. Hornaday essentially said, "You want information. I have plenty." All of it, of course, was damning evidence of how the Audubon Society betrayed the conservation movement in 1911 by accepting money from gun makers (see my posting here) and throughout the 1920s by supporting a migratory bird refuge bill that contained a provision for adding public shooting grounds to the refuges. Brant read the scrapbooks and became a lifelong convert to conservation. A couple of years later, in 1929, Horndaday shared his scrapbooks with Rosalie Edge, who, too, became an instant ally, fellow traveler, and critic of the Audubon Society. Hornaday shared his scrapbooks and documents with others, and his papers served as the archives for a militant, radical, and anti-establishment brand of conservation in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As he approached dotage and failing health, he made provision to send this archive of scrapbooks and personal letter books to the archives of the New York Zoological Park. Currently, it is the Wild Life Conservation Society, and that is where you will find his choicest conservation writings.

What about his private papers, the 39,000 other documents, now in the Library of Congress (LOC)? Here, too, one sees conscious effort to shape a view of the past. He annotated some letters with block lettering with messages for others. Other materials have notes relating on how he wanted to incorporate information into his autobiography. The LOC contains the total mess known as Eighty Fascinating Years, his unpublished autobiography, where several drafts are thrown together with different chapter headings, pagination, etc. Then there is lots of stuff he probably never wanted any historian to see. Amid the superfluous items (old car repair bills, heating bills, and thousands of pages of petty and routine correspondence) there were some real gems for the biographer. He gave advice to his daughter, some of which goes a great way to explaining his paradoxical behaviors. For example, how was some one so gregarious and friendly also so prickly and quick to cast off friends? There were many letters to his wife (some of them surprisingly bawdy) that shed light on his marriage. His personal letterbooks say a lot about his family relations, friendships, and commitments outside of work and conservation. I have always been impressed with Hornaday's appetite for work, but now I am even more impressed given his social commitments. Most heartbreaking of all is a letter from his mother, sick and dying in Indiana, writing to say she could actually brush her hair that day, even though someone had to write the letter for her. It was probably the last one he received from his mother and he kept it his entire life.

The Brant Papers were also interesting, and helped me explode one lie, but you will have to wait for the book to hear about that one!

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