When working from others becomes a conversation

My latest book is nothing like the others I’ve written. It’s not one of the novels, which required me to learn entirely different approaches to a story than I’d used in the daily newspaper business. And it’s not extended essays, like my usual Quaker materials. Nor is it poetry, where most of my literary efforts have been.

At the start, my genealogy came closest, but those are more research notes for others to follow up on – and if I ever get the energy to return to those, they do need a major cleanup.

As much as I’ve loved history, from childhood on, I’m not a trained historian. The closest I came was majoring in political science.

But for the last 50 years, I’ve been a Quaker and become quite grounded in the movement’s history and theology. And that’s what prompted the new book, along with Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.

I do like the big picture, and that’s what evolved here. Not just Dover Friends Meeting, then, but the broader forces that shaped and impacted it. So I went digging, drawing on others who had closely examined the early records or, in some cases, drawing on published journals and other early accounts.

Ground Zero, as it were. Contrary to the historic marker, however, William was not yet on the scene. The honor rather goes to Edward’s apprentice, Thomas Roberts, who was a key player in the early settlement.

What I collected seemed to write itself, which was an exhilarating experience – until I showed it to a circle of Beta readers. And then it was back to the drawing board, cutting the first half of the book by two-thirds and refining the tone by inserting myself into the text. The journalist in me, trained to be invisible, did so uneasily but trusted in the generous advice of a fellow poet and writer.

Also insightful has been historian Stephen Sanfilippo’s quip about being a “footnote historian,” the professional who can spend much of his career investigating minutia that become a paper or dissertation that in turn become a footnote in a “general” historian’s book, one that looks at the broader scene.

Much of my book is a step from that, drawing more on the general historians before me, but that’s led to its own encounters. I’ve often found myself in conversation with them, wishing we could actually sit down together rather than having all these years, even centuries, between us.

The first was Annie E. Pinkham, whose A Brief History of Dover Friends Meeting, a 1935 mimeographed paper, became the springboard for this project. Her material is no doubt based on much of what she had heard passed down in her husband’s family and maybe her own, though I’ve since found that her version of the earliest days of the town reflect common misunderstandings.

I’m also grateful to some people I knew personally, a generation older, who went through the Quaker minutes themselves – Shirley Leslie and Silas Weeks and I sense a few others. Their summaries were sufficient to round out the history, though there are many points where I now see that a more thorough investigation, of a doctoral dissertation nature, might glean answers that currently elude us. (Back to the footnote historians!)

George Wadleigh

Another voice I’ve been deeply grateful to is George Wadleigh, who struggled with many of the town’s often conflicting details and missing data when assembling his own history of Dover, dated April 1882 but not published until 1913.

The volume is prefaced with “NOTICE. It was the intention of the collector of these notes to complete them to a later date, then to revise and publish them, but he did not live to do so. They are now published without the revision the collector would have made, in order that his work may not be entirely lost.”

Originally, I thought that was Wadleigh’s own insertion, but finding that he died two years after dating the preface and that the book had to wait 31 years before publication, the “collector” seems to be Wadleigh himself, with the notice being added by one of the editors.

Either way, Wadleigh apparently had access to perspectives and possibly documents unavailable to earlier historians. He also may have had long discussions of the materials and their implications with other elders. From 1831 to 1868, he was editor and publisher of the weekly Dover Enquirer newspaper.

And then there are bloggers like Mark Everett Miner, some of them working as genealogists. I’m curious to see what they make of my take.

Beyond that, I hope I’m ready for the nitpicking and correction I’ll no doubt hear if anyone actually reads what I’ve produced.

As Stephen Sanfilippo has said, repeating the advice of one of his mentors about working in history, if you think you have the answer, you’re mistaken.

Or as I learned doing genealogy, every new answer you get raises ten more questions.

The work is never done.

Welcome to the dialogue.

~*~

Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.

 

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