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Biographies, editing letters and the joys of research

Leon Edel offers useful guidelines in his preface to the Letters of Henry James.
"Among scholars the discussion is interminable: how should letters be edited? Some seem to believe that modern letters should be reproduced almost as if they were photographs of the original. Is this valid in an age of photography? It seems to me when letters are translated from handwriting to print, they should be edited to be read as one reads books: with an avoidance of brackets and an economy of footnotes.  The & should certainly read "and," and all abbreviations and shortcuts of hasty writing deserved to be spelled out. Simon Nowell Smith, in a charming lecture on "Authors, Editors and Publishers," raised his voice rightly think against the bracketed sic when used immoderately, or the reproduction of obvious spelling mistakes anyone might make when writing in a hurry.  Modern scholarship has perhaps been rigid in believing that what applied to ancient manuscripts may be applied to the modern.  I have made silent corrections when they were obviously called for; but where there has been a significant slip of the pen I have indicated it in footnotes or kept it in the text...  As for the footnotes, I have preferred to be simply informative, with a strong feeling that if one carried footnotes to the extreme one could end up writing a history of all civilization.  I see no need to give full names and dates for every name in the letters.  ...Such footnotes as I have included are bibliographical or historical; identifications are made when they involved persons we meet repeatedly. I have tried to offer an answer wherever a reader might ask a questions. "

Keith Newlin, Editing Hamlin Garland, Keith Newlin http://people.uncw.edu/newlink/garland/editing.htm 
 Scholarly editors of letters (those who locate, transcribe, edit, annotate, and then persuade a press to publish the results) have to deal with a plethora of practical and technical problems.

Merritt Lee Nickinson Schatz, Kiss the Children for Father: Letters from a Civil War Prisoner at Fort Pickens, Pensacola Historical Society  I'm not the first in my family to edit a collection of letters, though this is from another branch of my family. http://www.amazon.com/Kiss-Children-Father-Pensacola-Historical/dp/B0006CMC26/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1291008826&sr=1-11

Catherine Osborne, director of Burnt Over by Dorothy Fortenberry, New York, March 2005 http://www.keyfitz.org/journeyman/shows/burnedover/synopsis.html
A play with a plot revolving around 1840s family letters.  Mary Glen and Osbornes in New York

Joys of Research
My first job out of college was as a fact checker and picture researcher (at the Franklin Mint, outside Philadelphia PA).  I hadn't known such jobs existed, and I'd never read so much from
American Heritage.   I eventually went to library school in Chapel Hill NC,  knowing I wanted to work in some sort of specialized library or research setting.  The following books and websites have been sources of inspiration and information as I've learned more about the 19th century and EJ Phillips' world.  

In the spring of 1992 I  poked around a little in the Research collection of Boston Public Library in Copley Square and found American Theatre Companies 1749-1887 which mentions John Nickinson (and daughter Charlotte Nickinson) as "lesser known guest stars" in the section on the "Providence Museum Company", organized in 1848 in Rhode Island "Better known performers" included Junius Brutus Booth  (and son Edwin) and Lola Montez).  However EJ Phillips was noted as a valued member of two outstanding stock companies of her day -- the Union Square Theatre Stock Company and Madison Square Theatre Stock Company, both organized and managed by AM Palmer Other sources of interest required more digging -- bound volumes of Harpers Weekly

I also went to the Harvard Theatre Collection and found pictures of and references to John and Charlotte Nickinson. But it took me years to find EJ Phillips' autobiography written for her manager AM Palmer in the Harvard Theatre Collection, after it moved to Houghton Library.

Visits to the Library of Congress have also been fruitful, particularly when Linda Osborne and Sara Day were working in the Publishing Office.  One of the most exciting finds came through the LC catalog.  John T. Nagle (1842-1919) seems to be the author of  “Table showing the total number of stillbirths and deaths (with an enumeration of some of the most prominent causes) which occurred in the city of New York during the ninety- one years ending Dec. 31, 1894” [n.p.] 1896 [LC Library of Congress] and  “The status of acting assistant surgeons of the United States Army, who served in the late Civil War, being a reply to the ruling of the War Department” New York, M. B. Brown, printer, 1893 [LC] and An appeal to President Roosevelt for justice to a class of acting assistant surgeons of the United States Army who served in the Civil War [New York : M.B. Brown Press, 1908. [College Physicians & Surgeons, Philadelphia].  The Library of Congress provided several publications of Dr. Nagle, one of which included these photographs. However this took some time, since they were originally Not on Shelf and required the intervention of Linda to eventually obtain them.

 It is difficult to know how much more might be unearthed, and I've been surprised by how much I can find using Google Books and online electronic newspapers.  But I'm one of the few people who read beyond the first few pages of Google results. I look forward to making return and first visits to the following collections.

The Harvard Theatre Collection has "clippings, playbills, scrapbooks, and so on" from the Union Square Theatre Company, AM Palmer's correspondence, clippings, and manuscript "History of the Union Square Theatre" with clippings and scrapbooks.

The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (New York) has Madison Square "scrapbooks, clippings, playbills and so on", Union Square "scrapbooks, clippings, playbills, photographs and so on", [and a clipping folder on the Olympic Theatre, as does the Museum of the City of New York] 

Museum of the City of New York Collections  prints, photographs and drawings http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=Home
Theaters  http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GWG7RT3&SMLS=1&RW=1343&RH=736

Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts  

The Walter Hampden-Edwin Booth Theatre Collection and Library at the Player's Club (New York) has AM Palmer's "inlaid, voluminous Record of the Union Square Theatre, including autobiographies, playbills, clippings, and so on".

The William Seymour Theatre Collection, Princeton NJ has a fragment of the Union Square Daybook and Notebook, and Palmer's Theatre comes up in the William Seymour correspondence.  

William Seymour Collection, Princeton University Library Chronicle, June 1941 pp 11-15  
William Seymour Family Papers, Princeton Univ. 


The Philadelphia Free Library (Logan Square) has a Philadelphia Theatre Collection with a Chestnut Street Theatre File, Chestnut Street Theatre Programs File and Philadelphia Theatre Index, as well as files on many of the Chestnut Street Theatre performers.

Biography books I recommend
Barnet, A. Alison, Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater, Northeastern University Press, 2004 


Bowen, Catherine Drinker, Adventures of a Biographer, Little Brown  & Co, 1946, 1959 https://www.amazon.com/adventures-Biographer-Catherine-Drinker-Bowen/dp/B000RB48K0

Caro, Robert A Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Alfred A Knopf, 2019 https://www.amazon.com/Working-Robert-Caro/dp/0525656340

Edmund de Waal, Hare with the Amber Eyes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hare_with_Amber_Eyes A wonderfully evocative family memoir by ceramicist de Waal, telling about his family through a collection of Japanese netsuke and his travels to Japan and Austria.

Edel, Leon, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica WW Norton,1959,1984 https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Lives-Biographica-Leon-Edel/dp/0393303829

Hershey Felder, George Gershwin Alone, Production Diary http://www.gershwinalone.com/prod%20diary/prod_diary_main.html   I never expected to find descriptions of someone doing research at the Library of Congress sound so glamorous -- and a wonderful performer as well.

Fraser, Antonia: The Weaker Vessel: Women in 17th century England, New York, Knopf, 1984. Recommended by Flora Fraser.

Fraser, Flora, Princesses: The six daughters of George III, New York: Knopf, 2005 

Hamilton, Nigel, How to do Biography: A Primer, Harvard University Press, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/How-Do-Biography-Nigel-Hamilton/dp/0674066154

Hamilton, Nigel and Hans Renders, ABC of Modern Biography, Amsterdam University Press, 2018 https://www.amazon.com/ABC-Modern-Biography-Nigel-Hamilton/dp/9462988714

Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper: The Craft of Autobiography and Biography Writing, Counterpoint Press, 2002

Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer , Viking Penguin 1985  
I learned from this book from a Jean Strouse interview on the web  and love Holmes' story of bouncing a cheque -- because he dated it 1776 instead of 1976.  
Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer, Pantheon Books 2000 https://www.amazon.com/This-Long-Pursuit-Reflections-Biographer/dp/030737968X
This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer, Pantheon Books, 2016 https://www.amazon.com/This-Long-Pursuit-Reflections-Biographer/dp/030737968X

Osborne, Linda and Casey King, Oh, Freedom, Kids talk about the civil rights movement with the people who made it happen  Knopf, 1997

Renders, Hans, Binne De Haan and Jonne Harmsma, The Biographical Turn, Lives in History, Routledge 2012 https://www.amazon.com/Biographical-Turn-Lives-history/dp/1138939714  Thanks to Wayne Soini for alerting me to and lending me this book.

Rollyson, Carl, Confessions of a Serial Biographer, McFarland & Co, 2016

Rose, Phyllis, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, Vintage Books, 1984 https://www.amazon.com/Parallel-Lives-Five-Victorian-Marriages/dp/0394725808

Secrest, Meryle, Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of her Subject, Penguin Random House, 2011   https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/163550/shoot-the-widow-by-meryle-secrest/

Strouse, Jean,
Alice James: A Biography Harvard University Press, 1999.  I heard Jean Strouse speak at a New England PEN meeting in Cambridge.  She told of visiting Alice James grave in the Cambridge Cemetery family plot and finding herself feeling terribly sorry for Alice -- and realized she was duplicating James' family dynamics         . 

Strouse, Jean  JP Morgan , 2003 http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-Strouse-jean.asp

Symonds, AJA The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her diary 1785-1812, Knopf, 1990

Vowell, Sarah, Assassination Vacation, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005 http://www.barclayagency.com/vowell.html  Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley and various travels to trace their histories. 

Vowell, Sarah, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Simon & Schuster, 2002   

Wickenden Dorothy Nothing Daunted: The Expected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, 2011 http://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Daunted-Unexpected-Education-Society/dp/1439176582/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309146002&sr=1-1   
Dorothy Wickenden, New Yorker editor  on Nothing Daunted http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/06/the-exchange-dorothy-wickenden-on-nothing-daunted-1.html
Roughing it June 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/04/20/090420fa_fact_wickenden

Ragan, Robert, Deciphering old handwriting  http://www.amberskyline.com/treasuremaps/oldhand.html from a course taught by Sabina Murray

Many thanks to Christine Kuta for introducing me to Melinda Ponder of the Boston Biographers' Group https://www.facebook.com/Boston-Biographers-Group-215846895158022/ which I joined in December 2017 and have enjoyed ever since.  Also joined Biographers' International Organization https://biographersinternational.org/  and hope to attend the May 2021 conference.

Last updated August 30, 2020

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