(Note: the thread for this post began on Monday; please scroll down if you are joining late.)
We saw yesterday that author Stephen Sears publicly styles himself the editor of George B. McClellan's papers based on his book The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865. His own count in the introduction gives the number of letters in the volume at 813, a very small harvest given the total number of papers out there, even considering his editorial limitation (self imposed?) of only printing letters fromMcClellan, not to him.
He further notes that 260, "nearly a third," had not been published before; and if you invert the form of his statement, nearly two-thirds of the book has appeared previously.
His great point of pride in the introduction is his re-editing of McClellan's letters to his wife, which - with Sears' citantional habits - is the subject of today's blog.
If you have never carefully read the introduction to The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, you have no chance of understanding what these letters to the wife are. And that's a problem, because so many writers use these letters to cast light on McClellan's character, motives, intentions, etc., not least of whom is Sears himself.
It may therefore surprise if I say that no one living has seen these letters; what we regard as McClellans letters to his wife are actually reconstructions from other sources, occasionally collations of undated materials. The situation, from a scholar's point of view, is this ugly:
+ McClellan borrowed his own wartime letters from his wife and wrote out detailed, verbatim extracts leaving ellipses in some parts where he skipped parts - so says Sears. (I accept Sears' explanation but it troubles me. This material, which I have seen, looks like a running log of letter drafts to be written in final form and then sent. I also have trouble believing that note taking for your book would cause you to carefully transcribe full sentences instead of extract factual data in sunmmary form.)
+ Many of these McClellan notes lack dates. And although Sears assures us the ellipses must refer to personal stuff, no one can know that for sure.
+ W.C. Prime, when editing McClellan's Own Story, asked McClellan's daughter May to add detail to some of the notes her father made from the letters. Prime did not see the letters himself. (May McClellan's additions are part of the Library of Congress's McClellan Papers collection. Many are undated. I have not seen them yet and do not know if they are snippets to be added to her father's extracts or longer extracts that stand alone. Sears does not tell us in his books.)
+ Prime augmented the general's notes with his daughter's notes, although we don't know exactly how this was done.
+ Sears, in The Civil War Papers, accuses Prime of leaving out certain material from McClellan's own notes and his daughter's notes. He "severely censored them."
So our situation, as readers and as scholars, is dire. We have these Frankenstein documents derived from a source never seen, some dated, some not, combined by a literary executor, retranscribed, re-edited, and dated by Stephen Sears.
Sears refers to "dates [he] corrected or supplied." Well and good if these practices are noted for each entry. But they are not.
He says, "Where May McClellan copied more of a particular letter than her father had included, the letter has been reassembled based on content and on McClellan's usual pattern of writing."
What on earth does that mean? There is nothing noted in connection with any entries in this book to suggest how a particular "letter" was assembled or dated.
Here's what we have passing as McClellan's "letters." (1) Notes copied out by McClellan, stored with his papers. (2) Supplementary material prepared by his daughter from the same source as McClellan's notes. (3) A combination of these, made by Prime which omitted some of McClellan's material and some of May's material and which (according to Sears) also included errors in transcription. (4) A new combination of these made by Sears from new transcriptions, which involved assigning dates and exercising editorial judgement in how to assemble individual letters "based on content and on McClellan's usual pattern of writing."
The letters, then, are not even letters; and the scholars quoting them as such without caveat have erred, especially where relying on them for issues requiring certainty, dates, timelines, etc.
Here is what Sears says about McClellan's "letters" to his wife in his biography George B. McClellan (1988):
Other quotations are from GBM's letters to his wife to be, preserved in the form of excerpts copied by their daughter, May, after GBM's death; most of the excerpts do not bear dates ...
Here's how he refers to one such "letter" in his Landscape Turned Red (1983): "Letterbook, McClellan Papers, reel 63."
And here's how he does so in To the Gates of Richmond (1992): "McClellan to wife, Apr. 8, McClellan Papers, pp 232, 234"
So he has indeed become the editor of McClellan's papers - simply be designating his own book, McClellan Papers! (see yesterday's post on this.)
The broader point is we have these mysterious patched up documents whose sources are unrecoverable: how do we treat them? What do we call them, aside from "letters"? How do we indicate an added date or the stitching that put two pieces together? Or the material previously omitted by Prime?
For answers, we'll look at a Frankenstein "letter" tomorrow and see what Sears has done with these weighty editorial and scholarly issues.