Why This Is Taking So Long, Part IV

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Want to know why writing Emmett’s book has been taking so long?

I submit:

This. The newspaper is filed under the wrong ‘state.’ If you do a state-specific search (as I have been doing), this source would not show up. Doh. Source: http://www.chroniclingamerica.gov

I found this during my ‘go back and check databases for updates’ routine. Something I do every other month or so.

The Chronicling America database is huge, which is why one would want to limit the searches to states, or specific newspapers.

It isn’t that I haven’t done an entire sweep of the database this size before, but it can be overwhelming to see thousands of items returned in a large sweep.  I’m glad the database is there — and I’m thrilled to have found this extra source of information. Emmett’s uncles and cousins, and his sister, Katie Wilson Meade, lived in Alexandria and were community/church leaders — there’s wonderful new articles to read about Emmett’s family in this paper!

My concern, as always, is missing or overlooking information that’s out there, but information I’d never find because it is misfiled or mislabeled, or has typos. This is one of the reasons I do regular checks of databases. The effort is completely worth it, but I’d never considered the idea that the newspaper in this particular database would have been filed under the wrong state.

And, of course, this will mean going back into the databases to consider that variable.

Commencing rolling up the sleeves and digging in….

 

 

 

 

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Rebirth & Eclipse

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I haven’t been much in the mood to write over the past few weeks. It has something to do with it being August and the feeling of things coming to an end, as it always does to me at this time each year. For most folks, the feeling of Auld Lang Syne, and the ritual of reflecting on things accomplished over the past year and planning for the next year takes place on December 31.

My ritual of reflection and rebirth for a New Year always takes place at the start of the new school year. Right about now.  And I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks.

First, I took a break from Emmett’s book. This was, really, the first true break of any significance from the writing. It was both difficult and necessary to break out of the daily — and I do mean daily — routine of writing about Emmett, because I was resenting it. It wasn’t that I was making a lot of progress, but that I was looking for distractions so that I didn’t have to write at that moment. I was forcing myself to write, and it showed.

Next, I’ve also come to realize that the approach to Emmett’s story wasn’t working out. Fact is, this is a biography with gaps in the data. I’ve invested four years collecting the details about Emmett’s life, which is fine, but the real story here is my relationship with Emmett and the process of researching an obscure man’s life. It’s not as dry as it sounds: You see, I’ve come to understand that the real work of research involves building relationships with other people, which, honestly, is something I’ve not been all that great about in my life. I’m coming through this process richer in friendships; certainly richer in the understanding of what it is that connects people.

And, it turns out I’ve been actively writing this book from day one, via my research journals, my correspondence, my blog posts, and the draft chapters. I’m not starting over by any stretch of the imagination. Rethinking the approach has given me a new energy; the presentation will be unique, something that I find exciting and energizing. This new approach feels absolutely right. I can’t explain it, but it makes sense: Most major writing projects involve starts and stops as the writer ‘tries on’ the story, or the chapter in progress.

I’ll restart writing Emmett’s story on the day my kids head back to school (Tuesday after Labor Day).

I don’t find it ironic at all that this epiphany took place during the month of the eclipse. And speaking of eclipses, we spent ours in Charleston, South Carolina.

The 2017 eclipse, during 100 percent totality, in Charleston, South Carolina, at the South Carolina Aquarium.

I’m looking forward to September, and to a fresh start with Emmett’s chapters.

 

Spring Cleaning

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On Tuesday, I posted final grades for the spring semester of my classes. Typically, I take the week in between spring and summer semesters to clean out files, finish last minute prep work, and and prepare for the next set of classes.

In addition, I decided to do some Emmett Wilson spring cleaning. I’m going through ALL of the articles, resources, references, images, and notes collected over the past four years. It’s great re-acquainting myself with what I’ve collected.

My organization strategy has been twofold: First, because most of the information about Emmett comes from specific sources, I organized each item by year and title of publication or name of source. Second, I created a timeline for Emmett’s life, and broke it down into four different time periods. In each timeline entry, I note the date, the event, and the location in my files of my source. There’s over 6,000 entries to-date. Booyah!

Reviewing the files also gives me a great sense of relief and control, especially since this has turned out to be a much larger — and incredibly more rewarding! — project than originally anticipated in 2013. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of it.

Another great benefit of going through the files is finding interesting oddball things I saved when I first started Emmett’s project —

This, for example:

D-I_V-O-R-C-E, 1916-style. Source: University of West Florida Archives

Source: University of West Florida Archives

This letter wasn’t written by Emmett or Cephas Wilson; I’m not sure who wrote it; I found it as a loose document in the Blount family archive records at the University of West Florida.

I saved it because during this time Lula Wiselogel Wilson filed divorce papers against her husband, Cephas Wilson, according to a family genealogy. The genealogy did not say why the papers were filed against Cephas, but a quote in the genealogy from Berta Daniel Wilson (no relation to Emmett Wilson, but a neighbor of Dr. Francis C. Wilson family in Chipley) was interviewed about it and was quoted in the genealogy saying that Lula had filed the papers and, “…the gossip was terrible at the time.”

For what it is worth: Lula never went through with the divorce, but knowing that Lula was a force to be reckoned with, she probably could prove items #3 and #4!

 

Heirlooms United

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Here is an absolutely wonderful treasure trove of vintage autograph albums, photo albums, calling cards, journals — everything I would love to have about Emmett Wilson or any other of Emmett’s friends.

I stumbled across it in search of information on one of Emmett’s roommates for his second book — and it has many wonderful personal artifacts.

The search for Emmett’s elusive scrapbooks continues…

Patchwork, Progress, Petersburg!

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I could have used an extra brain last week. Image source: http://www.borg.com

It has been a crazy, patchwork kind of existence in Emmett Wilson Land over the past two weeks — a lot of writing, a lot of teaching, a lot of deadlines. My writing life has felt cobbled together, much like Dr. Frankenstein’s creature: It works, but it looks (and feels) scary and out of control.

As mentioned in the previous post, I submitted an Emmett Wilson essay to The Ponder Review, a literary journal published by the Mississippi University for Women, with only 15 minutes to spare on Monday night. It was the first essay about Emmett to a professional journal; so, I was angsty about it.  And I have to tell you — I’m not super thrilled with the final product, even after eight drafts, and significant editing. It went from a first draft of more than 6,000 words to about 2,800 words, well within the required maximum word count of 3,000.
The editing helped, but I don’t feel as good about it as I did with the little essay that went to Saw Palm.  I was well into the second draft when I realized my problem:  I wanted to get an article submitted to a literary journal so I could check a box off my bucket list.
Sure, I could have picked another journal with a later deadline; I could have planned the writing project better, definitely. I could have tried to do this article when I didn’t have two other writing deadlines to meet all within the same week! But I felt I HAD to prove to myself I could write under a tight deadline like in the old days, when I used to work for The Commercial Appeal and the Vicksburg Evening Post (now The Vicksburg News).
Now I remember why I changed from covering the education and police beats at the newspapers to a career in education:  The daily deadlines (three or more stories a day) drove me crazy.

Regardless, I’m glad for the experience. I will continue to write for literary journals, but with realistic writing plans in hand. Live and learn! And write!

This week, I’m reading the third chapter of Emmett’s manuscript this week. It is in fairly good shape; I’ve rediscovered some interesting facts about Emmett’s relationship with Frank L. Mayes, one of the protagonists in this biography.

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Frank L. Mayes of The Pensacola Journal. Champion grudge holder. And a jerk.

For instance, Emmett met Mayes at his family home in Chipley, only two days after graduating from Stetson University’s Law School. Why was the editor and publisher of West Florida’s largest newspaper at Emmett’s house in 1904? It wasn’t to laud Emmett; he was a virtual unknown.

It was, however, an important meeting for Emmett: Frank Mayes was visiting Chipley with Walter Kehoe, a friend of both Mayes and the Wilsons. Mayes was interested in building his connections in Washington County; Kehoe knew that Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson, was one of the most important citizens in the community — and the timing was coincidental.
Mayes took note of Emmett, his achievements, his ambition, and mentally filed them away. He’d find a way to use Emmett to further his own professional goals. Emmett may not have realized at the time that Mayes was a master manipulator; I do have the impression that Emmett did not like Mayes after this first meeting.
Hmmm… Frank L. Mayes as an essay subject. Now that may be worth exploring!

Finally — I have purchased train tickets to Petersburg for an Emmett Wilson field trip!
Last summer, I posted a story about Emmett dedicating a Tiffany window at the Old Blandford Church in Petersburg, Virginia. I will be visiting Old Blandford Church and Petersburg on March 29-31 with my wonderful writing friend, Ann!
I’m also hoping to visit the Historic Petersburg Society archive — there’s old newspapers to see, specifically the one about the dedication ceremony. The ceremony was a very big deal in the community, and Emmett gave a speech. I haven’t found a transcript or text from that speech in any of the Richmond or Florida papers; I’m hoping the text of that speech was reproduced in one of the Petersburg papers. I don’t think the newspapers from 1912 have been digitized — but I will find that out this week.

Medium, Message, Context

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As promised in the last post, I’ll now walk you through the process I use to review artifacts that inform my research on Emmett Wilson.

Here’s a document I received from Emmett’s grand niece, Elizabeth, who is the granddaughter of Katie Wilson Meade.

cephus-letter-original

Elizabeth’s original note with this document said that it wasn’t about Emmett Wilson, and so, she wasn’t sure if I would need or want to have it, but she knew Cephas was important in telling Emmett’s story.

Elizabeth was correct — Cephas was a HUGE influence on Emmett, and of all his siblings, was closest to Emmett, as the relationship weathered several ups and devastating downs all through Emmett’s life. So, this document is valuable for background information. Of all the Wilson family members, Cephas was Emmett’s mentor. He stood by Emmett, guided him, counseled him as long as Emmett would take constructive advice.

Examining the Medium

I examine artifacts through three lenses: Medium, Message, and Context. Today, we’ll examine the medium; i.e., the document itself.

The first thing I notice is that Cephas wrote a personal letter to his brother-in-law, Emmett Augustus Meade of Alexandria, Virginia, on his office letterhead.

letterheadCephas’ information on the letterhead tells us a lot, too, even though it is sparse. There’s not much detail because Cephas Wilson didn’t need that much detail for identification in West Florida back in the day. I imagine my historic research colleague Sue Tindel would agree with me if I said that in 1910, a stranger could cross the city limits of Marianna and say the words, “Cephas Wilson” out loud, and any bystander would immediately know who the stranger was talking about, and where that stranger could find Cephas.

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Not Marianna’s Elvis in 1910, but Ceph did have Elvis’ hair. Source: FloridaMemory.com

It would be akin to saying “Elvis” out loud, anywhere in the United States. Most folks would say, “Elvis? He’s in Memphis.” (I’m not saying that Cephas was Marianna’s “Elvis” in 1910, but you get the idea.)

The personal letter to his brother-in-law, Emmett Augustus Meade, is typewritten. There’s samples of Cephas’ handwriting on the letter. His handwriting is neither illegible nor difficult to read, but more significant to me is that Cephas wrote this personal letter to his brother-in-law in his office. Not at home.

This gives me a clue that Cephas spent, probably, most of his time at work, and perhaps an 80-hour work week was normal for him. I don’t know that Cephas was a workaholic, but it is possible. Consider:

  • In 1910, Cephas was a lawyer, a state senator, a president of a bank, a business owner, and up for consideration to run for Governor of Florida all at the same time.
  • And, in 1910, Cephas’ net worth was close to or equivalent to a self-made millionaire today. Cephas didn’t have a lot of down time, and when he did, it was probably taken in his office.

So, we have Cephas writing personal letters in his office. Truthfully, I can understand why he’d have done that: His house was busy, not large, but full, with children and relatives temporarily living with him and Lula. I doubt seriously if Cephas was able to steal a quiet moment away from the noise and hubbub of his surroundings except for his office.

Another thing about typewriting a letter as opposed to handwriting a letter — I find it easier to type a letter these days because my thoughts move so much faster, and the words flow smoother if I use a keyboard as opposed to a pen and paper. Yeah, I still carry around the old school notebook and pen, and I do write in an old school journal. But my handwriting isn’t very good, because I’m used to writing fast, and it is frustrating trying to capture my thoughts with slow and sloppy penmanship. With all that Cephas had going on in his life, I feel as if that is also why he’d write personal letters on a typewriter.

The typewriter, by the way, was on Cephas’ secretary’s desk, which would also explain a little why Cephas used professional stationery instead of a plain piece of paper, or personal stationery: Cephas’ letterhead was probably the most convenient paper on hand when he sat down at his secretary’s desk to write the letter.

Below is an example of professional correspondence written by Cephas in 1908. It is a short letter in which Cephas wastes no time; he gets right to the point. Note the margins and line spacing, compared to the personal letter at the top of this post.

cephas-letterheadletter

 

I usually examine the back of the document too, but an image of the back was not included in the scan Elizabeth sent.  Also, I like to go over the document in a bright light and with a magnifying glass. I look for things like fingerprints or other subtle marks on the front or back of the document.

This is just a short analysis of what I do in the ‘medium’ analysis of a document. In my next post, I’ll walk through the message of Cephas’ letter to Emmett Meade. That’s a more intense, line-by-line dissection; so, stay tuned!

 

Finite Windows; Precious Artifacts

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Over the next couple of entries, I’d like to talk about the research process involved in gathering information about an obscure historic figure, and explain the process of reviewing artifacts for use in my research.

Most of the time, when I’m visiting an archive to collect documents or artifacts, I have a finite window in which to view the documents. Although I call ahead or visit the archive’s website to check out their holdings lists so that I know what exactly is in their collection, those lists don’t got into a lot of detail. I won’t know exactly what’s in the boxes until I get there — and then, once I are there with the box of documents in front of me, I have to read every piece to make sure I’m getting what i need.

Two tables worth of research materials, when I was at the University of West Florida. About half of the artifacts I handled were in good condition. None of these artifacts are digitized.

Two tables worth of research materials, when I was at the University of West Florida back in 2014. About half of the artifacts I handled were in good condition; the holdings list did not go into detail about what was in each document. Finally, none of these artifacts are digitized, so I had to read everything.

Because I have limited time, I get permission from the archivist to scanning or photographing the documents. So, on most of my archive trips, that’s what I’m doing for six or seven straight hours.

My students ask me if, when doing this, I find I’m collecting artifacts and documents that don’t have any relevance. That may be true; however, in gathering information to tell Emmett’s story, it isn’t just about collecting information about HIM, specifically (although that is important), but it is about collecting information about the context of his life.

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The barber shop in the San Carlos Hotel, about 1920, one of the many amenities offered at this first-class hotel. Emmett probably had many haircuts and shaves here — maybe even a manicure after he was elected to congress. Source: Cottrell Collection, University of West Florida Archives.

For example: Emmett never owned a home of his own, but he lived for a few years at the San Carlos Hotel, as a long-term tenant.

George S. Hervey. Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1909

George S. Hervey. Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1909

Some of the context around this would be Emmett’s relationship with the own, George S. Hervey, the different amenities and services the hotel offered to short-term and long-term tenants, and so forth.

In one of the archival boxes, there may be old bills and correspondence from Hervey to different long-term tenants from the early 1900s, which would give me an idea of how Hervey managed the hotel, and the accommodations given long-term tenants.

This first part, the gathering of data, can seem a little haphazard, but my experience has been to gather as much as I can that I think is relevant, and then to separate the information into three categories:

  • Directly relevant information
  • Supporting information
  • Background information

The information I have collected over the past three years on the San Carlos Hotel for the years 1909-1918 (when Emmett would have been a regular guest) is mostly supporting information and background information. What I’ve learned gives me an important understanding of what it would be like for a bachelor to live in an elite hotel when his fortunes were on a downward trend.

In the next post, I’ll take an artifact that Emmett’s grand niece (i.e., the granddaughter of Emmett’s sister, Katie Wilson Meade) sent me a few months back, and walk you through how I analyze it from three different angles: Medium, message, and context. I want to show you how a piece of paper, which might not look like much on the surface, can tell you a lot about an individual.

Stay tuned!