Adventures With Old Books and Old Biases

Alice Nichols' Bleeding Kansas

Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas

Since I began looking for them, the availability of out of print histories for reasonable prices has often surprised me. They often appear in the form of library withdrawals, with all the heavy use that implies, but still in readable condition. Now and then I get a genuine, pristine first edition. Rarely do sellers ask more than ten dollars.

The books have tremendous usefulness to me not just in chasing down the footnotes but also in the different style that one finds in older histories, if bringing with it certain downsides. One does deal with passages that reflect the prejudices of the authors’ times. At least in the field of nineteenth century American history, older works usually have a much stronger narrative focus. That translates into detail that a more recent author might stick into a footnote or just send you off to the archives or library for.

The modern approach has many advantages. It can do a much better job of communicating ambiguity and complexity. Almost always, a modern history draws on a greater diversity of perspectives. But sometimes the interpretation runs so thick that it threatens to drown out the narrative entirely, or risks focusing so much on voices from below that the actions of more political actors seem almost like forces of nature rather than the conscious decisions of people. Older histories, even with their sometimes abhorrent biases and very narrow focuses, can add that detail back in. One just has to work to balance it out and proceed with some care.

So I ordered up a copy of Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas, hot off the presses from 1954. It came with its library card still intact, originally from the stacks of the Hamline University Library and replete with the wonderful smell of old books. It still has the card in the back, which informs me that all of four people took it out between December of 1959 and April of 1988.

The book sat in a plastic bag outside my door for a few hours. I found the cover oddly soft. Opening it, I discovered why:  a good quarter-inch of water had infiltrated and soaked through along the edges. This disappointed me a bit, but mystified me more. It has not rained in my town in at least a few days. Where did the water come from? I feared a dog or some other animal ministered to its needs, but smell only water and old book. Rather than digging right in and risking the binding and pages to my questionable dexterity, I gently put the book on a register to dry. It swelled, but still closes and the binding held. All of the text appears intact.

Also Alice Nichols' Bleeding Kansas

Also Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas, but with added swelling

To my great amusement, Nichols dedicated the work to Jeb Patterson, George Park’s partner at the Industrial Luminary (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 56, 7) and there expressed her regret that she knew so much about other men of the age, but nothing about him save that his type went into the Missouri River in March of 1855 and he, contrary to those she knew far more about, preached a middle path.

Nichols makes my point for me. I don’t know that I find the middle path between slavery and freedom, which implies some slavery in any compromise, conforms that well to the right and good. That seems like a mighty white position to stake out. Such things matter to me far more than they probably did to a historian writing in the 1950s and educated in the decades before, of course. She also castigates northerners in her prologue:

So bitter was the struggle over the Territory of Kansas, so deliberately was it used to arouse and spread hatred that even the Northerners, who had done so much to make a peaceful solution to the slavery problem impossible, came to realize that they had gone too far. When Kansas was finally admitted to the Union after four Southern states had withdrawn from it, early in 1861, Congress, as if aghast at the tragic consequences that threatened from this final defiance of the South’s States’ Rights stand, jointly resolved to submit an amendment to the Constitution designed to establish slavery in the United States forever.

Still more Alice Nichols' Bleeding Kansas

Still more Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas…still legible!

This all scans as quite partisan, almost to the point of Lost Cause argument. Southerners act strictly, perhaps even nobly, in defense; Northerners relentlessly and hatefully on the attack. Nichols casts the Civil War as fundamentally tragic, a fratricidal affair we would have done better without. I don’t know that the slaves wold have agreed. Nor do I agree with her that any real hope existed for a legislative solution to the slavery question. Any such solution would have taken at least several more decades to come about and faced an increasingly recalcitrant white South. No such solution would likely have brought black Americans to anything approaching the gains toward equal citizenship that they have made in the history we know. I don’t rush to the grisly business of weighing lives, but nor do I view the replacement of the war against black America with a war that temporarily split white America and ended the other war as a poor trade. Four million lives then, and unknown millions more thereafter, make a stronger argument than seven hundred thousand or so.

But I say that in 2014, sixty years later. Nichols and I alike come from somewhere. We inherited our attitudes, if with modification, in our particular times and places. That neither accuses nor excuses either of us, but I try to keep these things in mind when using older works. The kind of scrutiny differs from, but overlaps with, that one uses when reading accounts by contemporaries to the events in question. What little I have so far read suggests that she took care with her facts. Our differing biases aside, I expect to make good use of her book.

4 comments on “Adventures With Old Books and Old Biases

  1. Andy Hall says:

    Nichols and I alike come from somewhere. We inherited our attitudes, if with modification, in our particular times and places. That neither accuses nor excuses either of us, but I try to keep these things in mind when using older works. The kind of scrutiny differs from, but overlaps with, that one uses when reading accounts by contemporaries to the events in question.

    A wonderful conclusion to a thoughtful post. That’s what so many adherents to the Lost Cause don’t seem to “get” — that history is written by people, all of whom bring their own background and experiences to their writing desk. They can readily call out the supposed agenda of Eric Foner or Drew Faust, but never imagine that writers like Mildred Rutherford — niece of Howell Cobbs, for heavens’ sake — had their own agendas and biases.

    • Thanks, Andy. 🙂

      I don’t know one could be informed enough to have an opinion worth noting and not also have some kind of agenda, even if one somehow avoided imbibing one growing up. Maybe a feral child who somehow beat the developmental problems and then became a robot could swing it, but we seem short on those outside the comic books. I hear it often enough to think some of them really believe it, though. People are awfully good at believing strange things.

      • Andy Hall says:

        Foner had a very good point to make about this in his online course, that historians in each generation are inevitably influenced by the world around them, and so they necessarily ask different questions and find different answers in the evidence than those who came before.

        • The historiography session of Foner’s class is my favorite to date. I used to find that kind of thing tedious, but the more time I spend with the sources the more I appreciate it. I scrawled a book list while watching…which I promptly lost. I only remember Genovese, who I want to save until after I’ve read Baptist’s book, Litwack, and from another session the book on Polk’s slaveholding. But I’ll get back, rewatch, and rewrite eventually.

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