Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Frisson in the Archives (or, Opening Pandora's Box)

I’ve taken a break from blogging, but this long break illustrates a point that many first time monograph writers may not know. There is a very long break between the time that you submit everything to the press (which includes your [updated] prospectus, cv, cover letter to the editor, and the finished manuscript). If your book is part of a series, your series editor will submit a cover letter on your behalf explaining how your book enhances the scholarly conversation that the series intends to stimulate. So in short—submission is a bit more complex than hitting Send. But even when you do all that, you should brace yourself for a long period of silence. Readers of past posts will remember that I finished the chapter from hell as my sabbatical drew to a close. My series editor told me that the early summer was the optimal time to get reviewers to commit because they still had illusions about getting their own work done in the summer and reviewing manuscripts. There was some logic to this rhythm. I have only reviewed manuscripts in the fall (presumably after writers had the summer to work on them) but I was considerably more bogged down with the work of the academic semester and would have been less cranky in the summer.

But I do not want to close out my stint as a guest blogger without discussing archival frisson. Many of us hope to find untapped sources. But then if we find them, we (I at least) worry about the responsibility for interpreting that kind of evidence. Those who work on slavery in the British Atlantic are doing remarkable work in the new histories of gender, slavery and the archive that reconstruct the lives of enslaved subjects from a very thin record. Their struggle lies in interpreting the fragments and weaving together the fleeting images of enslaved women that appear in the official record.

Slavery scholars of the early modern Iberian Atlantic are blessed with an overabundance of legal records. We do not have private journals, epistolary records, newspapers or other print culture. Rather we have voluminous lawsuits, meticulously recorded inquisitorial proceedings, and carefully kept parish books. Each parochial entry gives us a brief social history of the individual and their social worlds. I painstakingly sifted through this archive for a decade—discovering nothing “new” so to speak but using these sources to craft a scholarly contribution.

Padilla libros, Editores y Libreros, Sevilla

Halfway through my sabbatical, I became aware of an uncatalogued “box.” As I understood it—these uncatalogued boxes exist-- but in well-used, combed over national archives, we do not expect to see them. It’s like “discovering” something in the National Archive at Kew or the Library of Congress. You might “discover” a box in a remote fifteenth century castle/monastery-turned-municipal archive and hope that it is something paradigm shifting. Your expectations about discovery going into that monastic space will be somewhat different than the ten-week stint at the British Library. So this is a roundabout way of saying that I did not expect to be presented with this box. When I became aware of it, I asked a trusted friend and respected Peruvian historian for advice. He whistled, expressing both sympathy and pragmatism. He recommended a very long footnote. As he pointed out, legal scholars are fond of the ridiculous and infamously long footnote (in which all scholarly diatribes and grudges are embedded) of a lengthy law review article.

But really, dealing with new or untapped and late-breaking sources is not for the faint-hearted. You have no scholarly crutch to rely on in terms of previous interpretation. You don’t have the luxury of expending years more on processing this evidence and thinking through what it does for your argument, let alone the field! And there are risks, as Pandora found out. What if the box contains evidence that completely contradicts what you have written to date? (Who but yourself would ever know?) Or what if it corroborates your theory? Or what if it brings archival frisson? With the tantalizing prospect of frisson in mind, I opened Pandora’s box.

Padilla libros, Editores y Libreros--Sevilla, Spain
Luckily I did not find contradictory material. But I daresay had I not opened the box I would not have been able to write the book that I did. The evidence therein fleshed out the other sources and brought them into sharper focus. Because I could only work selectively to keep on schedule, I focused exclusively on those records that allowed me to write future chapters and rethink those I had already written. This was not the slow consultative pace of archival work, but rather something akin to salvage archeology. I was ruthless in discarding what I thought I could not use, deploying an uncharacteristically steely determination to ignore the delicious libels and the oh-so-very-interesting vengeful prehistory documented in the folios.

Most historians recommend that late-surfacing sources provide perfectly good material for future projects. That is reasonable advice if you are thinking about sticking with one historical and geographic context for a long period. Others suggest that you use these as a way to reflect on what you did not do in your book and think through them at a later date. But the takeaway is to save them and focus on the writing because peeking inside the box risks inevitable delays to finishing the book. They are after all rabbit holes. I’m going back this summer with an insatiable curiosity and time set aside to devote to the box. Who knows what I will find?