Monuments vs. Documentary Editions: How Best to Remember the Past

A statue of Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota State Capitol was taken down by American Indian Movement members on June 10, 2020.

We have all been thinking and talking about monuments, about how they are created, what they mean,  and when or whether they should come down.  Whether it is the toppling of the likeness of Christopher Columbus in Minnesota, efforts to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, or the removal of Margaret Sanger’s name from Planned Parenthood of New York’s downtown clinic, the meaning of monuments and our understanding of the past is being challenged. Monuments are a problematic way to understand history. They are a one-note, simplistic way of claiming that a person  mattered to the people that put them up. Over time, they become something else, icons of the cities in which they are located, and a shorthand guide to a history that glorified mostly male and mostly white political and military leaders. They offer a simple message — hey, this guy was great! We understand the danger of this kind of simplification when talking about living people. We even have a phrase to warn us about the risks of doing it — putting someone on a pedestal — or to believe or behave as if someone  is perfect  to the extent that one ignores that person’s flaws or faults.

The Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond has been defaced with graffiti. The governor announced plans to take it down on June 4, 2020, but this has been challenged in court.

And it is the faults and the flaws of the people we have honored with monuments that are being exposed now.  It is past time. No one, now or then, is perfect. How can we reconcile honoring an individual who owned slaves, or who fought against the Union, or who held racist, sexist, or eugenic views? On the flip side, how can we ignore the context of the times they lived in? Is it right to hold people to ahistorical standards of behavior? We have to place people in historical context, based on an understanding of what the world was like when they lived. This isn’t just making excuses or becoming an apologist for figures from the past.  We have to stop seeing people as either good or evil, heroes or villains, and instead be able to see the grey, to praise what they did well and condemn what they did that was intolerable. We have to stop putting them on pedestals.

A Better Way to Learn About the Past

A name on a sign or a building, or a statue doesn’t tell much about the person, for good or ill.

If a monument is too simplistic — too one-note — to convey the complexity of a human life and the historical times they lived in, what is the alternative? I would argue that it is the documentary edition, made freely available, that brings understanding of the complexities of the past. My career as a historian has been as a documentary editor, first with the Margaret Sanger Papers, and now with the Jane Addams Papers, so I may be biased, but I also speak from experience.

A documentary edition is not a film, it is a compilation of historical documents, prepared by scholars, on a theme of historical importance. It is usually centered around a single person’s life, but occasionally describes a group, such as the Freedmen and Southern Society Project or the Yale Indian Project’s Native Northeast Portal.

We center the work around the words of the historical figure

Much of the work of the editor revolves around finding, selecting, and transcribing the letters, speeches, diaries, and other texts produced by a historical figure. We use our historical training and long hours of reading literally everything a person wrote to select documents that offer a nuanced and complex view of that person’s life and career.

We don’t shirk from the negative or controversial. When selecting documents for the Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, we made sure that her views on race, on eugenics, and on abortion were included alongside her views on women’s rights, civil liberties,  and reproductive freedom. With the Selected Papers of Jane Addams, we look to highlight Addams’s views on race, poverty and immigration, just as much as her ideas about social work and peace.

The Jane Addams Papers Project consists of a microfilm, print edition (6 volumes planned) and a digital edition based on the microfilm.

Many editions create two products. The first is a comprehensive edition, often digital nowadays, but in the past they were published on microfilm. These collections, resulting from years-long searches in archives and private collection, are extremely valuable for scholars because they bring together materials that were dispersed over the globe. The selected edition, often published in book form, though increasingly in digital form, takes the most historically significant materials and adds annotation, to create a readable series that tells a shorter, yet nuanced, story of the figure’s life.

We work really hard to make sure that the texts of the documents that you read in our editions are accurate and complete.  You won’t find snippets of texts removed or taken out of their context  in order to make an argument.  We proofread the transcriptions as many times as is needed to get a good, accurate text. The focus is on the document, and by reading them, one after another, you gain a deeper, personal understanding of the subject.

We provide historical context, but leave interpretation to you

Editions use annotation (headnotes, footnotes, and introductory texts) to give the reader a sense of the times, to fill in the gaps when the texts don’t do it. Editorial annotation is not the same as historical interpretation. This was brought to my attention when working on an early draft of my dissertation on birth control clinics, when my adviser, Linda Gordon, pointed out that I wasn’t disclosing what I thought about all the materials. My text was descriptive and it needed to be analytical and interpretive.  I was writing like an editor, carefully researching and describing situations, but not bringing my own views, ideas, and analysis to the foreground. Writing an interpretive narrative is a different animal, one in which your experiences and the times in which you live color the way that you approach a topic. Think about multiple biographies of the same person — the basics of their lives stay the same, but the questions we ask, the values we bring to the topic affect the way that we view and interpret the past. Editors aren’t immune to those same biases, but our approach is different.

Our annotation is document-driven. What I mean by that is that we look at the texts, written by our subjects, and explore their content. When a person or event or topic is mentioned, we add a footnote to explain who or what they are talking about. There is no better training than researching for a documentary edition.  You don’t get to decide that the topic is too hard and you can’t skip over things or change your research direction, like you might do in a monograph or term paper.  These notes are generally short and informational rather than interpretive, which teaches you to be precise and succinct. Reading the text with the footnotes helps the reader understand things that a contemporary reader would already know.  I liken it to reading with the town busybody standing over your shoulder, providing you with the backstory for each document.  Except that busybody is a historian.

Jane Addams to Theodore Roosevelt, August 24, 1912.

Annotation can also fill gaps in documentation. The nature of a selected edition is that we have left many, many documents out.  For example, we selected a letter written to Theodore Roosevelt from Addams in 1912 about her role in winning women to the Progressive Party. This was not the first letter written about the topic, so we use annotation to summarize what already occurred before that document was written. It brings the reader up to the now.  We also use annotation to refer readers to material in archives and in our comprehensive microfilm or digital edition where they can go deeper.

Where does interpretation fit in all this? After reading so much and researching every bit of a person’s life, editors do form opinions and interpretations. They might turn up in the introduction to a volume, a conference paper, a blog post,  journal article, or monograph. The litmus test, for me, is whether a person who doesn’t like the subject can use our work with confidence. Will they trust that you haven’t hid or obscured documents or other materials that could make your subject look bad? My favorite review of the first volume of the Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger was from the Weekly Standard, where David Tell wrote:

Somewhere, amidst the sucker punches and cries of foul, the truth must reside. And “somewhere,” it turns out, is the enormous and altogether dazzling selection of public and private records just put out by the manuscript curators at New York University’s “Margaret Sanger Papers Project.” They too, like the earlier biographers, unambiguously admire the woman. But they have done their editing with scrupulous care, they have annotated the documents they reproduce with monk-like dispassion, and on the face of it they have held nothing back. (January 27, 2003)

History for the Masses

Digital scholarly editions, made freely available, are a far better monument to the life of a historical figure than statues or buildings could ever be. They provide a historically accurate, nuanced look at a life. They show the moments of weakness as well as moments of great strength and more than biographies or statues ever can, they render historical figures as real people. People with problems, people who have difficult family members, who follow fad diets, watch plays and movies, and fully lived in their times. They also foster critical thinking about historical figures and moments. While editions won’t fit easily into 140 characters or a 15-second TikTok video; neither does history.

Who we select to be the subjects of editions matters

Editions don’t stand outside society, and there has been a long history of privileging the papers of white male politicians and military leaders. Whether the founding fathers, presidents, or generals, the subjects of these editions sound much like the names on monuments, and the names we all learned in history books. The editions of these papers provide a more nuanced view of those lives, including co-workers, rivals, families, and in some cases, slaves.

A statue of Jane Addams lifting an immigrant child on the campus of Cal State Fresno.

In the 1970s, the field began to open up, adding a handful of projects featuring women and African-Americans. But it is not enough. We need to broaden the topics of editions to include the voices of marginalized peoples. And we need to broaden the range of people who become editors, because more voices will reveal a more vibrant story of America’s past. Smaller projects, based on intriguing people reveal lives and stories that have been erased from popular notions of history.  It is happening, albeit slower than we would like.

Thinking again about monuments, I wonder if there might be an “edition-worthy” check before you put up a monument. Could you devote years of research, funding, and scholarly effort to create the Papers of Edmund Pettus? And after you had done so, exploring his ideas and providing context for his military career, his political views, and his leadership in the Ku Klux Klan, would you build a statue or name a bridge after him?

 

 

 

 

Visualizing Jane Addams’ Social Networks

I recently took a course on Gephi, an open-source network visualization tool offered by the Programming 4 Humanists group at Texas A&M University. This three-session Zoom-based course, taught by Katayoun Torabi was a great entry to a digital humanities topic that I have long been interested in.

One of our long-range goals at the Jane Addams Papers Project is to make the underlying data in the digital edition accessible so that digital humanists can use it for research. Having a chance to play around with network visualizations helped me to think through how we might use this tool to understand Jane Addams’s life and her causes in new and interesting ways. It also helped me better understand what we need to do to make data from our edition available.

A few ideas popped out immediately:

    • a visualization of Addams’s correspondence, modeled on the ideas used to create the Mapping Republic of Letters project at Stanford.
    • a visualization of how people in the Addams’ digital edition were connected via organizations, looking at for example, the interactions between women involved in the suffrage movement and the peace movement.

In this post we will look at correspondence networks.

Thinking About Data

The examples that Katayoun used in our class were all drawn from literature. We mostly worked with data from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, looking at instances of speech between characters to create visualizations of how the characters related to one another.

Here is my visualization of Hamlet using Katayoun’s data set. Central characters have larger circles and appear in the center, while less important characters are further out, smaller and have fewer appearances.

What struck me almost immediately was that the difference between this kind of analysis and what I hoped to do, was that with a literary work (or any single historical record), this analysis can provide an accurate representation of that text. As I thought about how we could this tool to understand the Jane Addams Papers, the problem of incomplete data reared its ugly head.

We have to understand that any visualization of the Jane Addams papers cannot fully be a visualization of Jane Addams’ lifeAddams’s papers are incomplete. We are missing many of Addams’ most intimate letters between family members and her long-time companion, Mary Rozet Smith. At best, we might be able to visualize more of her professional life than her personal one. But we are also missing many, many letters sent to colleagues and acquaintances that never made it into archives and private collections. Many of the papers of Addams’s European counterparts did not survive World War II. So what we are left with is an impression, a partial glimpse into her world, but an imperfect one.

What can counts of letters tell us about Addams’ life? When I first took on editing the Addams Papers, I tried to estimate (by counting entries in the microfilm edition index) how many documents we had in the base collection so that we could estimate how long the project would take. Even as basic a visualization as the one below can help you see the broadening of Addams’s life as she moved from a local activist to one who operated on a global scale.  It can give a rough visualization of when things happened in her life.

Counts from the microfilm index.

This red line (total documents) gives us a good sense of scale, and also the  years where we could expect the heaviest number of documents. In the first ten years (1901-1910) we had low document counts, which rose dramatically in 1912 (Addams’s participation in the 1912 presidential election), 1915 (Addams’s establishment of a peace movement in the U.S. and international peace congresses). Her activity through the 1920s and early 1930s remains high, with peaks in 1927 and 1931 (Addams’s Nobel Prize).

Looking at the lighter green line (letters written by Addams), we see a fairly consistent output until the end of her life. The only outlier is 1923, a year in which Addams was on a tour of Asia and then suffered from serious illness.  It is possible she wrote fewer letters, or fewer of them survived. Most of the dramatic peaks come from increases in incoming letters.

Anneliese Dehner, our web developer prepared a spreadsheet that represented the Item Relations for people in our digital edition. I was able to work with that in a rudimentary way to explore Gephi.

Nodes and edges

In network visualization there are two tables of information, nodes, which are unique objects, and edges, which link nodes by some kind of action. The hard work of network visualization is gathering all this data so that it can be displayed by Gephi or any other tools.

    • For a correspondence network, the NODES are the people in the database. They get an ID (in our case the Omeka ID number on our database) and a LABEL (the name of the person).
Here is a snippet from the Nodes table. Each name in the database is assigned a unique identifier.
    • The EDGES represent the letter. They contain an unique ID, a SOURCE (the ID number of the author of the letter) a TARGET (the ID number of the recipient of the letter) and a WEIGHT (the number of times that that same combination appears). They can also have a LABEL (the relationship — in this case “Written by”). The most common recipient, with 234 letters, is Sarah Alice Addams Haldeman (#50), the sister of Jane Addams. In second place is Emily Greene Balch (#501), a co-worker in the peace movement, donor Anita Blaine McCormick (#60) in third place, and social worker and settlement founder Lillian Wald (#33) in fourth place.
This table of edges show author Jane Addams’ (#5) most frequent recipients.
    • Another table of EDGES describes the people who were Mentioned in a document, not just the authors or recipients. This might get at a more representative understanding of Addams’s network because one could surmise that important people might be mentioned in letters even if the correspondence between those two people might be lost. And here we do see different results. On this table Mary Rozet Smith (#164), Addams’s companion comes out at the top, with Woodrow Wilson (#4596) coming in second, donor Louise DeKoven Bowen (#814) in third place, and Addams’s niece, Marcet Haldeman-Julius (#30) in fourth place.
This table shows the most commonly mentioned people in letters written by Jane Addams (#5).
Basic Visualization

My first visualization of the mentions data was, to be frank, underwhelming, unless you like big black boxes of goop!

There are simply too many points in this data!

We have over 10,000 names in the NODES table. To get to a visualization that is more legible, I excluded edges with less than 10 mentions in the correspondence.  Now that is readable! The weight of the line indicates the number of mentions.

These are the people mentioned the most in the digital edition, thus far.

I played with the appearances of our networks to make them easier to understand. Making the labels and the circle sizes proportional to the number of mentions allows you do see things more clearly.

The visualization is interactive. If I click on Paul Kellogg’s circle, only those names associated with him are highlighted– in this case a small subset of the network.

Paul Kellogg of the Survey’s network.

While Emily Greene Balch, a peace activist, is far more interconnected.

 

Emily Balch worked with Addams in the Woman’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The idea here is to explore the various networks that Addams built in her work for peace, social justice, social work, and other causes.

Next steps

Generating the data to build the NODES and EDGES tables requires some work, and filtering the data to get a meaningful result will be critical to creating data sets that the public can use. Our goal is to make this kind of data accessible to students and digital humanists to explore data visualization and Jane Addams.

We are still adding documents to the digital edition, so the first step may be building a dataset of correspondence for each year that we have completed.

In my next post, I’ll look at building a network using our data on people and organizational membership.

Jane Addams, Vachel Lindsay, and Me

History is, essentially, the stories of individual people and the interconnectedness of their stories to each other and to the broader history of their communities, their societies, and their world. The intersections of the lives of the historical figures who occupy my historical imagination are fascinating to me, and the people who inspired them are always central to the development of my understanding about their lives and the historical space they occupied. Jane Addams, for example, was an inspiration to an entire generation of female reformers who lived and worked at Hull-House, and the individual work those women pursued made an important impact on Addams’s world view, her writing, and her advocacy for social and economic justice. As well, her fascination with Tolstoy and her childhood memories of Abraham Lincoln offer us insights into the development of her ideas, her ideals, and her visions for reform.

As a historian, I spend a great deal of time thinking about these human connections of the past. The close relationships of the historical figures I study—like the intimate friendship between Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith or the professional relationship Addams shared with reformer and settlement worker Lillian Wald—offer obvious clues about Addams’s personal and professional life. The intersection of these particular personal stories tell me much about the lives of women in the first part of the 20th century, the network of Progressive Era reformers, and the conditions of life in the urban environments of Chicago and New York City. But as an enthusiast of the past, it really gets interesting for me when I chance upon an unexpected or less obvious historical connection. It is particularly thrilling when that connection also resonates in some way with my own personal story or relates to other historical interests I  entertain.

Recently, I was doing some editorial work on a set of documents dated just days after American entry into WWI. One document was a letter to Jane Addams, dated April 9, 1917:

My Dear Friend:

What shall I do? This war breaks my heart. Send me what you have written since [William Jennings] Bryan enlisted — for instance. Are you with Bryan? Do you accept President Wilson’s war message on its face value? Is that final with you?

I hate a hyphenated American. I hate war. But I owe no one in Europe a grudge. I would rather be shot than shoot anybody. If I had been in Congress I would have voted with Miss [Jeannette] Rankin and would have considered it a sufficient reason to say “I will not vote for war till she does.”

Please write me a tract, or send a clipping. With all respect

Nicholas Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay was a poet and performing artist who is relatively unknown today. He lived and worked in Springfield, Illinois, where I lived and work myself for more  than twenty years;, and, therefore, I am well acquainted with his body of work and the story of his life. When I read his letter to Addams, I recalled that Lindsay had written a poem about her, inspired by her peace trip to Europe in 1915. However, I was unaware he knew Addams personally nor that he had corresponded with her. The Jane Addams Digital Edition includes four letters from Lindsay to Addams, each revealing something of the poet’s respect for and fascination with Addams and with Hull-House. In an October 1916 letter, Lindsay proclaimed: “I have loved you a long time dear lady.”

That love had, indeed, inspired the poem I had remembered, “To Jane Addams at The Hague,” which Lindsay first published in the Chicago Herald  in May 1915 and later as part of his popular 1917 collection The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the 1910s, Lindsay spent time in Chicago performing his poems and seeing his literary friends, including the poet and magazine editor Harriet Monroe, with whom Addams was also acquainted. Lindsay frequented Hull-House, where his good friend George Hooker was a resident, and it seems likely he enjoyed at least one or two good talks with Addams. It is unclear when he might have been formally introduced to her, but in April 1916 he wrote her a letter indicating they had been corresponding for some time. That letter was a reply to a letter from Addams, and in it Lindsay sent her his wish that they may soon see a moving picture show together. There are no known extant letters of Jane Addams to Vachel Lindsay, but the content of his letters to her indicates she had some interest in the young man and his work, and in a speech in 1922, she quoted Lindsay’s analysis of the new medium of the movies in modern society.

Lindsay, who was associated with a group of celebrated Chicago writers that included Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, was a creative and somewhat eccentric young man. He traveled the country on foot, selling his poems to support himself, and he popularized for a time the chanting and singing of poems, often performing them with musical and dance accompaniments. In December 1916, Lindsay invited Addams to one of those performances at the Little Theatre in Chicago. It is unclear if she attended, but there is evidence she invited Lindsay to Hull-House on a few occasions. In October of that year, Addams sent Lindsay a copy of her book The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, and in his letter of thanks he wrote: “I sat down and read it all morning and half the afternoon the minute it arrived. It is a lovely book—the work of a Greek, a woman more Greek than Christian.”

The fact that Lindsay, who was a progressive thinker, admired Jane Addams and her work is not surprising. Addams and Hull-House inspired many artists and writers, as well as reformers and social workers. Nor is it surprising that Lindsay, who spent time in Chicago and who interacted with people in the orbit of Hull-House, had a personal acquaintance with the famed settlement worker. What is surprising, and fascinating, too, is that Lindsay experienced a strong emotional connection to Addams. His friendship with her his touched soul, as one biographer put it. Lindsay looked to Addams for answers about his anxieties related to the war, sought her approval of his work, and shared with her his fears about failure. “Back of it all is the hope that my book shall be a live thing—a piece of ink-dynamite, not just a book pleasantly discussed by people who read my verses,” he wrote Addams in 1916. “With so many books dying before my eyes—I cannot bear to write a dead one.”

Lindsay had experienced his first hallucinations in 1904, initial signs of the future mental illness that would ultimately cost his him his life; and his breakup with the poet Sara Teasdale in 1914 had been emotionally traumatic for the poet. But by 1916, Lindsay was enjoying considerable literary success, winning awards and selling books. Although four letters is far, far, far from enough evidence to evaluate the emotional importance Lindsay may have been attaching to his friendship with Addams, a close reading of the letters, however, evokes a whisper of the mental distress that was coming. There is a breathless quality to the words and the sentences, and the letters leave me wondering what kind of advice or encouragement Jane Addams may have offered Lindsay in their face-to-face interactions with each other. It is unlikely we will ever know.

What I know for certain, however, is that the relationship between Lindsay and Addams, despite what it may have meant to her on a personal level, is an example of the richness of the interconnectedness of human stories, the broader sphere of one person’s influence in the world. In this case, it speaks to the significance of Jane Addams as an inspirational figure. But it is also one of those delightful connections I am happy to chance upon, which light a spark in my historical imagination and connect my own story to the stories of the past.

Notes: Anna Massa, Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970, 17, 46, 100-101, 202; Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life O Vachel Lindsay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959), 240, 247, 258; “Lindsay, Vachel (1879-1931), American National Biography; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, October 15, 1916; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, October 29, 1916; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, April 9, 1917; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, June 26, 1917, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was a Democratic politician from Nebraska. In April 1917, he offered his services to the government in the war effort. American National Biography. Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), a peace activist and Republican politician from Montana, was the first woman to serve in Congress. She voted against the American declaration of war against Germany in 1917. American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. The image of Lindsay is courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.