In today’s salon.com, historian Glenn LaFantasie comments on something many of us have known about for a long time: the reluctance of the Lee family to give full access to the papers of Robert E. Lee and his family.
This is not an uncommon event. Members of the Grant family tinkered with volume one of the Grant papers, because they did not want to air some of Grant’s comments about Mexico (especially the Catholic Church). That generation has passed, and it would be a welcome change if the new generation rescinded those restrictions. But that was not the first time the Grant family had done such a thing: Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the general, had played games with biographers for some time one can see this even in his dealings with Lloyd Lewis). So did the editor of Grant’s papers, John Y. Simon, who got into a debate over the issue of access to the papers with William S. McFeely. When I discovered a collection of Grant papers at the National Archives (copies of Grant family correspondence), I simply approached the Grant family directly, and members of the family granted me access (you can see these papers cited as “Grant Family Papers” in Let Us Have Peace). That collection was then added to the Grant collection at the Library of Congress, whereupon Geoffrey Perret claimed he was the first to use them in his 1997 biography. Apparently he was unaware of how they had been already used, both by the Grant Papers and by me.
I also found the same challenge when getting permission from members of the Sherman family to publish Sherman’s Civil War, although family members proved quite cooperative.
Over the years I’ve talked to various scholars who’ve expressed an interest in editing Lee’s papers, and the issue of family prohibitions has always come up. As LaFantasie notes, Elizabeth Brown Pryor had a different (and more positive) experience, and you can detect the tension in LaFantasie’s piece. Sometimes you have to convince the family that you are not out to do a hatchet job on their ancestor (thus, when I approached the Grants, I sent them a copy of my 1987 article on McFeely’s biography; however, on the other hand, I have never joined the Ulysses S. Grant Association or been invited to any of its meetings, and while the leadership of the USGA will have to explain the latter, my explanation for the former was simple: I was not eager to appear to be the house biographer).
LaFantasie’s discussion of Pryor’s experience also reminds us that historians often block the access of other historians to primary sources. Allan Nevins blocked William B. Hesseltine’s efforts to consult the diary of Hamilton Fish in writing his study of Grant’s political career. A prominent Grant scholar blocked my access to material by someone who knew Grant in Galena under the excuse that he wanted to publish it first (this was over a dozen years ago; the material was never published, and I can safely say that the scholar in question will not publish it). That same person tried to block the Sherman Papers project from getting under way.
Absent an impending publication of material, I see no reason other than professional competition and jealousy to act in this way, but it happens. In turn, sometimes people contact me about their work (Jean Edward Smith did so when he was embarking on his biography of Grant), asking if it’s okay with me that they work on Grant. Of course it is (it was a nice gesture, however, if nevertheless totally unnecessary). In turn I have friends alert me that this person or that person are working on Grant, sometimes, it seems to me, with an eye towards gauging my reaction. I simply don’t care: the idea that historians can block other historians from pursuing topics seems peculiar. As for family members denying access to material, all they succeed in doing is raising questions: what are they hiding? Why are they afraid? In seeking to protect a reputation, they do harm to it.