Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Knowing When To Say When. . .



Back in grad school--during one of those countless, three-hour-long night courses where we M.A. & beginning Ph.D. students mingled with the ABD's and sat roundtable fashion discussing the intricacies of methodologies and historiography--a subject came up which haunts me, if you will, to this day. Namely, it was at what point does a historian decide to call off his/her research and begin writing. It may seem simple enough, but as anyone who has written history can tell you, it is anything but. At one point during the discussion, I am not sure if it was a fellow student or a professor, but someone said, "No historian is ever truly satisfied with his sources." And with that, the discussion moved on. . .
I remember distinctly that quote. I agree with it, wholeheartedly, and when I sit down to try to finally put words on paper, I repeat it over and over in my head.
Yet I find it very difficult to accept it and move on with my writing.
For more than a decade, I have traveled to scores of archives and libraries, gathered data, scoured shelves, filled notebook after notebook, and did just about everything a researcher does collecting information on both the 48th Pennsylvania and Brigadier General James Nagle. My wife and those who know me well labels this as some kind of obsessive compulsion, and I am sure psychologists would agree. My intention is to ultimately turn all of this research into two books: one, building off my master's thesis, being a social portrait of the 48th, not a retelling of the regiment's campaigns and battles, but a detailed look at the soldiers themselves; the other, a biography of Nagle, an obscure and entirely forgotten Civil War general. I have a ton of information, literally thousands--and thousands--of pages, seriously, yet whenever I decide to organize my notes, prepare outlines, and begin the task of writing, well, there comes that nagging, persistent voice in the back of my head telling me, "Not yet. . .You're not ready yet. There is more out there."
And this voice has always won out, at least as far as these projects are concerned, especially the Nagle one. I must have begun this "book" at least half a dozen times throughout the past five or so years, writing several chapters and then shelving the project as I returned to the seemingly unending task of research.
I cannot help but think that there is yet more to discover; more letters and diaries, more sources, both primary and secondary, and this thought simply paralyzes my efforts. I keep imagining the discovery of a "smoking gun," so to speak. . .a trove of source materials that will provide more insight and answer those unanswered questions. As FBI Agent Fox Mulder would say, "The Truth Is Out There." Sometimes it does seem that my projects are, indeed, "X Files."
But while I keep waiting, my work is simply not getting done.
So, I suppose the question is this: when does one know when to say when when it comes to concluding the research and beginning the writing? I imagine that once one reaches this point, a determined, and I mean determined, effort must be made not to start up again on that very slippery slope of research and to just push forward with what one has already got. To state forthrightly, "No historian is ever truly satisfied with his sources," to accept this fact and labor onward. Yet as I sit here composing this post, I know also that this, too, must be very difficult.
I imagine also that I am certainly not the only one who has lost sleep over this concern. So if anyone out there has any advice, suggestions, or sage wisdom, I am hoping you would be so kind as to share.

10 comments:

Harry said...

Why does there have to be an end to research and a beginning to writing? You have to embrace the web medium, John. Stop thinking inside the box of print media. Don't look at your web persona as a mere extension of the "real" practice of history. You don't need to be "done". Let the research take you where it will, and write about it as you go, here, on your blog or on another site.

John David Hoptak said...

Harry. . you know I never really thought about it tht way.

Thanks.

Eric Wittenberg said...

John,

Start writing. Stuff will continue to surface, and then your challenge will be to work it in.

Harry's exactly right.

Eric

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, Eric.
BTW, I've been meaning to talk to you re: the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry. Turns out, the bugler of Company L was none other than Emerguildo Marquis, a native of Mexico and orphan adopted at the age of 8 or 9 by Capt. James Nagle, Co. B, 1st PA Vols. after the fall of Mexico City. In the winter of '62-'63, Brigadier Gen. Nagle requested Marquis to join his staff to sound the calls, which was approved but later drew the ire of Col. McIntosh, who wanted him back for the onset of the spring campaign. Was wondering if in your studies you ever came across anything on Marquis?

John said...

John,

I once heard Gordon Rhea speak and he said that he spent ten years researching material for his book on the Wilderness. Once he finished the first book, he said that he had done enough research to continue on with the rest of the Overland Campaign. Maybe you've got enough for several books. I say get writin'!

John C. Nicholas

John David Hoptak said...

Hey John. . .
Thanks. I think I will take everyone's advice and just start writing.
But as you know all too well, I really need to watch out for my overuse of the comma!

John

mannie said...

John,

I think this applies:

"You never finish editing a film, you just stop."

Stanley Kubrick


Ain't it the troot?

Mannie

Eric Wittenberg said...

John,

I haven't...I'm sorry. In truth, I really haven't done a whole lot with the 3rd Pennsylvania, so it's not a huge surprise that I haven't come across him.

That's interesting, though.

Eric

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, Eric.
I knew it would be a shot in the dark, but thought I would ask nonetheless.

jpm13us@yahoo.com said...

John: Please write about General NAGLE asap. Share your knowledge with others. His story deserves to be told.When you publish please do a hardcover edition-limited copies if need be. James McCorry