Hiding the Subject

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  That generation has passed, and it would be a welcome change if the new generation rescinded those restrictions.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.

10 thoughts on “Hiding the Subject

  1. Terry Walbert July 31, 2011 / 11:56 am

    Shning a light on unethical or unscholarly behavior is one way to combat it, or at least make the perpetuator pay a price for engagnign in it. I think you should reveal the name of the “prominent Grant scholar” who blocked your access to certain records. If no one calls them out, some people will continue to do this.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 31, 2011 / 12:38 pm

      In this case, careful reading and a little logic will help one identify the person in question. He’s no longer a concern to my work, although his work has helped mine.

  2. Ray O'Hara July 31, 2011 / 1:44 pm

    Hmmm McFeely or Simon.I’ll go with Simon as he edited the Grant Papers giving him some control and his being deceased would give assurance he will not publish them.

    the idea of historians blocking others access is interesting and seeing what human nature is to be expected but still it’s jarring, as you said, if one has a book in the works it’s one thing, otherwise it is a crime against knowledge and history.

    Maybe the Lee papers confirm the slave mistress story.I can see where they might accept rumor over confirmation. Rumor can always be denied.
    One needn’t do a hatchet job, sometimes the truth is more than damning.

    a classmate and little league teammate of mine who was also one of the finrt Hockey players my high school ever produced is a professor at ASU in the Psych Dept.
    He went to Harvard but difficulties with Bill Cleary ended his hockey career, {having had to deal with Cleary in my “professional”:) duties I can vouch he was an ass.

  3. Leonard Lanier July 31, 2011 / 1:44 pm

    It’s not just R. E. Lee that the family worries about. During my graduate seminar on Colonial and Revolutionary History at LSU, Charles Royster described his dealings with one branch of the Lee family during his research for “Light-Horse Harry Lee” as “plainly bizarre.”

  4. Dan Weinfeld August 1, 2011 / 7:16 am

    Why would you need Grant family permission to use Grant papers you found in the National Archives? Aren’t those public property? Does NARA restrict access without family consent? How extensive are family property rights to ancestors’ papers generally?

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 1, 2011 / 9:05 am

      Not in this case. The National Archives had made copies of private papers for the Grant Papers. They were not available to the public at the time.

      Families can still control publication rights. They control the “text” (what are called “literary rights”) even if someone else controls the artifact.

  5. Terry Walbert August 1, 2011 / 1:49 pm

    I think this is the crux. Someone wants to control the story, whether it’s the Lee family or Sandy Berger stealing documents that embarrassed the Clinton administration after 9/11.

    What these folks don’t understand is that it’s all going to come out sooner or later.

    • Andy Hall August 1, 2011 / 3:57 pm

      Wow, that was gratuitous. Couldn’t think of a non-politicized example?

  6. Mark August 4, 2011 / 11:50 am

    Is there a way for me to find out anything about Grant’s comments on Mexico and the Catholic Church now? I’d love to know anything about what he said. It sounds like you’re saying the family is still blocking it, but I’m not familiar with access issues so I just want to ask to be sure.

    • Ray O'Hara August 4, 2011 / 9:34 pm

      Anti-Catholic sentiment was common among protestants in that era so I can’t imagine he said anything that wasn’t the common view of most of America.
      Remember JFK having to swear he wouldn’t do as the Pope ordered.
      It made people uneasy thinking someone’s ultimate loyalty lay elsewhere.

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