Searching for the
My route into the history profession was indirect. As an undergraduate at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) in the early 1970s, I was a science major. But along the way I discovered that I was less interested in working the assigned problems or in doing the required labs than in learning how and why those "exercises" had been undertaken by scientists in the past.
After graduating in 1974, I spent the summer in Plattsburgh, New York, visiting my mother's youngest brother. Uncle Bill was an artist—a painter and a photographer—and what especially impressed me about his work was how virtually anything he did was grist for his mill.
As a physics major, I had seen little connection between the behavior of electrons, light beams, etc., and day-to-day human affairs. But in my uncle's case there was a direct relationship between his art and his other activities. Family trips to the Adirondacks or to the coast of New England provided him additional opportunities for landscape paintings and photographs, and the old farmhouse he and my aunt restored gave him additional outlets for his artistic energies.
The fruitful unity of life and work appealed to me, and I began to consider how I might achieve something similar. One likely possibility in my case was the study of history. Although I hadn't been a history major in college, I learned that there existed a sub-field called the history of science—for which a strong science background was a definite plus.
Back in Memphis that fall, I confirmed my interest in the history of science. Then I decided to strengthen my science training still further by seeking a master's degree—at Georgia Tech. Not until the fall of 1977 did I enter a doctoral program in the history of science.
When I arrived on the Homewood Campus of the Johns Hopkins University, I thought I had already learned how to use a college library.
As an undergraduate, I had posed for myself what I called "The Library Question." Available to me in the stacks were more books than I could possibly read. I'd have to pick and choose. But which books would I pick? And—more to the point—on what basis would I make my choices?
The lesson from Southwestern was to select "the first-class books, the best books" on any topic. A similar criterion also shaped the curriculum as a whole. At Hopkins, however, I quickly realized that something quite different was called for. As a graduate student, my goal now became mastering the art of research—and from a researcher's point of view "the first class books, the best books" on any topic was old business. Of course, a good researcher had to be a good scholar, fully conversant with previous studies. But the main aim of the researcher, as researcher, lay elsewhere.
Research was a matter of creating new knowledge—not just for oneself but also for one's society. What a researcher sought in a library was not the best treatment of some topic or other. Instead, a researcher sought topics for which the existing treatments were insufficient or (even better) lacking entirely. The researcher's task was to formulate new questions, for which the library's books contained no satisfactory answers.
By themselves, however, unanswered questions weren't enough. At the heart of the researcher's art lay the tricky process of negotiation between the questions asked and the sources available. Researchers struck "gold" whenever good questions and substantial source material could be brought together.
Efforts to find suitable sources often took researchers out of the stacks and into the archives. It was this step—the transition from published to unpublished sources—that I found the most difficult to make. Initially, I planned to study the career of E. O. Lawrence, a mid-20th century American physicist whose papers were held by a library in California. But a West-Coast sojourn proved harder to arrange than I expected.
Meanwile, I decided to spend a day at the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. There—in the papers of Merle A. Tuve, another mid-20th century American physicist—I hoped to find letters from Lawrence. By the end of the afternoon, I realized that I'd be able to ask of Tuve's papers all the questions that I had planned to ask of Lawrence's. Accordingly, I approached my dissertation advisor about changing topics. He readily gave his assent, and by mid-1981 my research was well underway.
That summer, Dad had a job in Washington, DC. For a while, Mom was there, too, and one weekend the three of us took a trip to visit Grandma Cornell. We left on a Friday, after Dad had finished work, and that evening we drove as far as a Holiday Inn near Sunbury, Pennsylvania.
The next morning we continued up US-15. Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, and—later—when we came to the new dam on the Tioga River, we stopped for a look. Finally, we checked into the Stiles Motel on Route 415 in Coopers Plains.
Although Dad had visited Grandma regularly over the years, I hadn't seen her since 1972—so as we drove the final leg of our trip to Campbell, he brought me up to speed.
"She's an old woman now," he said. "She isn't the same person she was as a wife or a mother. She doesn't plan more than an hour ahead of time. On an earlier trip I helped her clean up the front room. But she started to fill it again—so she may not let us into the house. I'll plan to ask her to join us in going out for lunch. But to get her to agree to things, you have to catch her in the right mood with the right idea."
To this Mom added, "She's lived alone for so long. I haven't been inside the house in years. She hasn't let me inside."
Dad had told Grandma not to expect us before 10:00 AM, and it was about 11:30 when we pulled into the drive. Although Grandma wasn't on the porch to meet us, she clearly had intended to be—for the stage was all set. She had brought out several cane-bottom chairs, and next to hers was an upended potato crate on which she had placed a number of items: the latest issue of The Conservationist magazine, a biography of Mary Cassatt, a picture book of the upcoming royal wedding (Charles and Diana), and a folder labeled in pencil "Class of 1911."
At the front door I rang the bell but got no answer. Dad guessed that Grandma was probably napping—so after a while he walked to the Corner Store and telephoned from there. When Grandma finally did come to the door, she explained that she had waited on the porch for over an hour and had gotten tired. Dad then asked her about joining us for lunch. But she declined—so the three of us walked to the Stonehouse Cafe.
Back at Grandma's after our meal, we noticed two fellows next door gunning the engines of their motorcycles. "I'm glad you were here for that," Grandma told us after they'd left. She then launched into a long tale about her neighbor.
One day she had decided that she wanted to move her car from the side of the house into the barn. But the drive was blocked by her neighbor and a companion, who were throwing a ball back and forth. "You are trespassing!" she had told him. "You are bold!"
In so speaking, Grandma's voice took on a stern, harsh tone that seemed to catch her by surprise as much as it did us. She then continued her tale, describing how worried she had been that her neighbor would take her comments the wrong way and would deliberately make further incursions. But when time passed and nothing of the sort happened, she decided that he had just needed someone to set him straight.
At that point—as if to compensate for her earlier outburst—Grandma paused to laugh. She pursed her lips, leaned backward a bit, and chuckled so deeply that her whole body shook. It was (I learned later) a characteristic effort to transform anger into something positive.
Nevertheless, our visit had gotten off to a rocky start. Nothing was really going quite the way that any of us had anticipated. Eventually, however, Grandma did get around to the items on the potato crate.
What most caught my attention was the folder with the 1911 labeling. In it was a recent clipping from the Corning Leader, showing a photograph of Grandma and her classmates at the time of their graduation from the Campbell Union School. On and on she talked about that picture, telling us more than I was able to keep in my head. "If only I had a tape recorder," I though to my self, as I began realizing that I had on my hands a wonderful source for historical research.
Back at the motel, while Mom and Dad got ready for our evening drive to take Grandma out for supper, I began writing. But I still wasn't sure what I was after. Was I needing to keep a journal of the day's events? Was I needing to put on paper what I could remember of Grandma's stories? What, exactly, did the circumstances call for?
After supper, Mom and Dad returned to the motel and left me at Grandma's—where I spent the night in the back bedroom upstairs, the one that Dad had fixed up for his solo visits. The next morning, before breakfast, Grandma and I looked over some of her old family photographs. Wanting to be helpful, I suggested: "Why don't I get some envelopes for them and label the envelopes?"
My remark prompted her to ask if I'd be willing to extend my visit. Later I conferred with Mom and Dad, and we agreed that I could stay for a week and return to Baltimore by bus.
From the outset I understood what had elicited Grandma's invitation. Earlier she had described herself as a "has been," unable to keep up with the requests for information that people still made of her. My remark had implied a willingness to help, and she had accepted the offer.
In the process I glimpsed—for the first time—the depth of her commitment to history. It wasn't just that she was an historical source. She was also a researcher who wanted to make the results of her work available to others.
That night after retiring to the upstairs bedroom, I wrote and wrote. If I was serious about treating Grandma as an historical source, I would need suitable questions. In the pages that followed, I generated the set that would guide me for years thereafter—questions such as "What was life like on a family farm before World War I?" and "What was public-school teaching like during the early 20th century?"
Also included on the list were questions involving Grandma's interest in history, and during the next several days answers to these began to surface.
Following her husband's death in 1942, Grandma went back to work. Mostly this involved full-time teaching, until her retirement in the mid-1950s. For awhile after that she read literature, did some substitute teaching, and worked summers at the Davenport Library in Bath.
What whetted her interest in historical research was the library work. Patrons would ask her questions that she couldn't answer, and she felt motivated to look up the answers. More than that, she found herself immersed in a place with a rich history. One thing led to another, and by the early 1960s she had become Town Historian for Campbell. Meanwhile, she also became active in various genealogical societies.
As this general picture emerged, I decided to ask Grandma outright: "Where did you get your understanding of historical research?" Without hesitation, she answered with a pair of stories.
According to the first, an acquaintance in town once told her about a street that years ago had crossed an open ditch over a small bridge. Now, Grandma learned, the bridge and ditch were gone, having been replaced by an underground culvert. This seemingly trivial observation had driven home the realization that people alter the land on which they live and that historical research involves the study of such changes.
Based on our earlier interactions, I had already guessed that Grandma's understanding of research was also linked to the "proofs"—the evidence needed to demonstrate lines of descent—that she had learned to prepare in her genealogical work, so I wasn't surprised when her second story involved a genealogical society. Because most of her earlier talk had centered on the Daughters of American Colonists, I was surprised when her story reached back to the first genealogical society she had joined—the Daughters of the American Revolution—about which I'll be writing in a later essay.
© 1996, Thomas D. Cornell