My Civil War History professor in grad school, Dr. Bell I.Wiley, used to try to inspire us to ever-greater heights of scholarly productivity by relating how Allan Nevins, the legendarily prolific Columbia University historian, carried a portable typewriter with him on long trips so that he could write while waiting for flights in various airports. According to Wiley, Nevins was also known to welcome guests to his home for parties, then disappear into his study, where he worked on his next article or book while his friends mingled below. Now, for all I know, those anecdotes about Nevins could well be “academic urban legends,” but, since I still remember them over forty years later, they obviously made quite an impression on me. A year ago, as I contemplated the prospect of having uninterrupted time to devote to my long-running “project” (AKA, my second book on the formation of political parties in the state of Georgia), I wondered if I would be as disciplined as Professor Nevins. Not surprisingly, the answer turned out to be “no,” but I still haven’t done too badly. “Retired But Not Shy” for about a year now, I thought it only proper to review my progress “Doing History After Leaving the Classroom.”
A lot of what I’ve done over the past twelve months has been what I call “scut work,” grind-it-out research: reading and taking notes on a half dozen Georgia newspapers (fortunately available on-line) for the period 1838-1845. I did this because I decided, while still gainfully employed, that I would be unable to answer the question I originally set out to research on the latter phases of political party formation in Georgia if I concluded the study at the end of 1837. I needed to go further, but how much? The solution, based on preliminary research in the years after 1837, was, through about 1845. So, that’s what I’ve done over the past year. And, it turns out, extending the scope of the study was the right thing to do, though I’m still not sure exactly how I’ll use what I’ve found from those years. My idea at this point is to present my findings for 1838-1845 into a sort of “epilogue,” but that strategy is certainly not set in stone. In addition to this fresh research, I’ve also revisited the notes I’ve taken for the project, reorganizing or combining several different sets. Funny thing, though: I don’t feel as if I’m done with any of them yet, a feeling I’m sure any of you who have embarked on a large-scale research endeavor are familiar with .
I’ve also done quite a bit of preliminary writing over the past year. Once I took notes on the Georgia newspapers and other primary sources from a particular year, I composed what I called an “annual survey,” basically using the cut-and-paste feature of Word to arrange the most useful notes into a “topical summary” of each year, with information under each topic arranged in chronological order. But then, just when I thought the time had arrived to begin work on a draft, I discovered that those wonderful folks at the “Galileo” website I’ve raved about before in this blog had added yet another relevant newspaper, the Athens (Ga.) Southern Banner, to the data base. This meant that I had to read and take notes on the Southern Banner for the period 1838 through 1845, add those notes to the “topical” surveys, and convert the end product into an “essay ” written in my deathless prose. Just the other day, coincidentally the first anniversary of my retirement, I finished what I hope will be the final essay, on 1845.
I also have a serviceable outline, covering 1807-1837, that I created a couple of years ago, and, once I revise it to include highlights of the research on the period 1838-1845, I should be able to begin to write that so far elusive first draft. I’ve also prepared a number of other essays on topics that I found interesting, or puzzling, or both, over the years I’ve been laboring in this particular historical vineyard, and these too must be blended into the larger work.
At the very beginning of my retirement, I needed to complete work on an article, “James Gunn, Georgia Federalist, 1789-1801,” for publication in the Fall 2010 issue of the Georgia Historical Quarterly. By that point, all I had left to do was to correct the galley proofs of this second–and final–installment in my biography of the Georgia United States Senator (and prime mover of the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud). Since part one of the study appeared in the same journal way back in the Summer of 1996, you can see how little importance my “prep school” employer placed on “publish or perish” (which I rather selfishly believe was to their great credit)!
As I knew I would, I have also used the past year to plow through a large number of books, though only a few were directly related to my research project because I have always been able to keep abreast of relevant publications as they appeared over the long gestation period of this project. The rest of the volumes I’ve read since retiring fall into several broad categories: general history (a few of which I’ve written about in this blog); mysteries; and a surprisingly large number of works that, for lack of a better label, I’ll simply call “miscellaneous.” My usual practice over my teaching career was to ease into summer by immersing myself in what I liked to call “cheap, trashy thrillers,” by which I meant detective fiction. Essentially, I’ve continued this practice since retirement, the difference being the amount of time I’ve had available to spend on them, because I’ve obviously had a lot longer than three months to read since I saw the front gate of the school in my rearview mirror for the last time, in late May of 2010.
So, to sum up: While my productivity cannot hold a candle to that of the assiduous Professor Nevins, I have gotten off to a pretty good start on this next phase of my career, and I am definitely looking forward to what lies ahead.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: