Thursday, November 29, 2012

Diary of a Public Man

Ever since I read The Historian as Detective by Robin Weeks, I have been fascinated with the “Diary of a Public Man.” Published in four installments by the North American Review in 1879, the Diary appeared to be an authentic insider’s account of the dramatic succession winter of 1860-61. Its intimate accounts of famous players, especially Abraham Lincoln, during this tumultuous time period in the history of the republic only added to its appeal. Perhaps the most famous part of the Diary is a story of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Noticing that Lincoln could not find a place to set his signature stove pipe hat, his rival Senator Stephen A. Douglass took it from him and held it throughout the ceremony. This episode has been relayed in many books since the appearance of the Diary in 1879. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss used this story as late as yesterday in a tweet. Yet, the Diary is the only source for this story. It seems odd that no other attendee noticed this act at the time. The Diary contains several stories of this caliber, but it rings so true and has been proven correct in several instances, that historians have had difficulty discarding this unique behind-the-scenes account of the start of the Civil War.

Several historians have attempted to identify the Diary’s author. Frank Maloy Anderson’s 1948 book, The Mystery of the Public Man, was, for over half a century, the most detailed and in depth analysis of the question. Anderson argued that Sam Ward, a well known and connected lobbyist, authored the Diary. Using a rudimentary diary of events written during the winter of 1860-61, Anderson argued, Ward later added the colorful stories that made their way into the pages of the North American Review. Not all historians were convinced of Anderson’s claim that the docuement was a fabrication or his of assertion that Ward as its author, and the Diary has been used as a source in sixty-four years since the publication of Anderson's book. 

Historian Daniel W. Crofts believes he has solved the mystery of the "public man's" identity. In the October issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, he announced that the Diary’s author was William Henry Hurlbert, a journalist (this is the condensed argument of  his book A Succession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). In addition to naming a different author, Crofts' finding differed from Anderson in one other significant point. Instead of viewing the Diary as a genuine document from the time it purports to cover with fictional stories thrown in later, Crofts finds that the Diary is a complete and total fabrication. What I find more important, however, is how Crofts explains why Hurlbert would do such a thing. It was not a mere hoax; Crofts had a political agenda. Crofts argues Hurlbert purposefully sought to challenge the memory of the Civil War as was forming in the minds of his fellow Americans. As someone who considered the war and its death toll to be a tragic failure in statesmanship, he crafted an account that depicted the road to war as anything but an inevitable conflict. He deplored both the Lost Cause ideology of the south as well as the bloody flag waving of the north. And he made a case -- albeit a fictional one-- that President Lincoln was not a saintly figure. One wonders what Hurlbert the journalist would have thought of Spielberg's Lincoln.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reading and Reseach in the Digital Age

I really enjoyed William Cronon’s Perspectives article on reading in the digital age. He makes an interesting comparison between ancient scrolls and the scrolling we do within digital media. Despite powerful search engines, finding what you need within an electronic text can be an arduous and time consuming task. My own example of this is scrolling through the online versions of the Public Papers of the presidents of the United States. The University of Michigan has all the volumes from Presidents Hoover to Obama (with the exception of FDR) on line. It can take some time to find and navigate to the item I want to find. On the other hand, if I get my fat tuckus out of my chair, away from desk, and to the library, I can usually find what I need in a matter of seconds through the old fashioned method of thumbing through the book. That is not to say that the University of Michigan site is not a valuable one, but that it proves Cronon’s point that scrolling through electronic text is much like scrolling through ancient scrolls. In his view we are going backwards in time and forsaking the benefits of the more accessible codex. A step forward, in other words, is, in some ways, a step backwards in time.

One thing Cronon did not mention in his article is the growing trend, especially among popular historians, of writing from google books and other internet sources. There is an odd resurgence of works from before 1920. While this can be a boon to historians who are able to access hard to locate popular magazines and other valuable primary sources, the problem arises when old historiography is carelessly cited and recycled because it is readily available. I will review an example of one of these books in the near future.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Employers telling their employees to vote for a candidate? A candidate accused of being a radical? Bad economy? Am I the only one thinking I woke up in 1896?