Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Amateur Makes Good

Some fellow bloggers weighed in recently on the distinctions between amateur and professional historians in the world of Civil War historiography (for example here, and here, and here). I could venture a few opinions on that myself, but probably not without insulting someone I know on both sides of that definition. As a personal aside, I do not claim the mantle of “historian” for myself, because I don’t fit the bill. I don’t have the advanced training, and I don’t spend a lot of time doing original research. I read a lot, and I distill and I synthesize, and sometimes that leads to observations that seem more fresh than stale, at least to people who have read less. Rather than professional versus amateur, it might be more useful to distinguish between good, and lousy. The good ones contribute something lasting.

James Hall, who died in February of this year at age 95, was something more than an amateur historian (see his Washington Post obit here). He was an amateur historian who was also recognized as a leading authority on his chosen subject -- in this case, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A recent Wall Street Journal essay quotes an unnamed associate as saying that “James O. Hall knew more about Lincoln's murder than anyone who ever lived, including John Wilkes Booth.” That may be stretching things a bit, but probably not by much. In the same vein, we could make the point that Licensed Battlefield Guides at Gettysburg, perhaps even faithful readers of the Gettysburg Discussion Group, know more about what transpired in that three-day battle than did Robert E. Lee on his deathbed.

But Hall did more than become well versed. He helped to definitively debunk a widely accepted text, Otto Eisenschiml’s, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? And as a researcher, he uncovered a document that must have made dedicated Lincoln scholars tremble and weep: John Wilkes Booth’s handwritten rationalization for the murder he would commit later that day. Score one for the amateurs.

Mr. Hall apparently had the added quality of not being pompous, an affliction that may be more common among the over-educated, but which has been known to spill over into amateur ranks as well. He could have gone for a high-profile glossy magazine exclusive to celebrate his find, but no. And he could have donated his private archives to a university in exchange for a plaque announcing the James Hall Reading Room, but no.

This excerpt from a WSJ essay sums it up.

Typically, in 1977, Mr. Hall chose to publish this astonishing find in the Lincoln Log, a newsletter for buffs. Its circulation was minuscule compared with the slick magazines--National Geographic or American Heritage--that would have loved to showcase such a find and maybe make its discoverer famous. But Mr. Hall was without professional vanity; that's what it means to be an amateur, after all.

At the end of his life, Mr. Hall treated his vast archives with the same modesty and discretion. At least two well-endowed universities made a play for the contents of his file cabinets. Instead, he gave them to the small, homespun Surratt House museum, once the country home of the Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt and a favorite gathering place for buffs. With a single stroke, he transformed the museum into the Alexandrian library of assassination studies. It was a gesture of confidence and fellow feeling, made to all amateur historians from the best of their kind.


In other news: today we’ll learn about the discovery of another Lincoln document. I first saw mention of this at Dimitri’s blog, and then looked up this National Archives press alert

Media Alert: June 4, 2007
National Archives Press Conference to Announce New Lincoln Document Discovery
What: A press conference to announce and unveil a newly-discovered Lincoln document. Archivist Allen Weinstein has hailed this discovery as a “significant find.” The press will have the opportunity to film/photograph the discovery after the remarks and unveiling.
Who: Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein Archivist Trevor Plante, a specialist in Civil War materials
Where: The Archivist’s Reception Room, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.Media should use the 700 Pennsylvania Avenue entrance.
When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, June 7, 2007
Please Note: No Artificial Light may be used on the document.

Cover at top: William A. Tidwell, David Winfred Gaddy, and James Hall, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln (reprinted, University Press of Mississippi, November 2001)

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