In the Footsteps (Part 12)

Lofty Ambitions is going to AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Doug will present on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Chicago Hilton. As we’ve peeked at letters and telegrams written in bygone days, we’ve learned a lot about archives and how to read these documents. Doug’s expertise as a scientist and as a librarian continues to be a great asset for us, and he’s sharing some of that here at Lofty Ambitions as well as at AWP.

To read the rest of our “In the Footsteps” series, click HERE or on that tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar. To read posts by those presenting presenting at the AWP panel “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” click HERE or on the Guest Blogs category in the menu up top, then scroll for Tom Zoellner, M. G. Lord, Jeff Porter, and Kristen Iversen, whose forthcoming book will be featured in Barnes & Nobel’s Summer Great New Writers program.


Doug & Enterprise at NASM

I’m currently working on an espionage novel, set during the Manhattan Project. the Lofty Duo has done a fair bit of research, including working in the archives of the Library of Congress, where we’ve read through some boxes of the papers of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Although I’d taken away several fascinating tidbits from that research project, after hearing Alan Furst discuss methods for building a vocabulary that authentically recreates a historical period, I silently admonished myself for not being more methodical in my own use of the letters, memos, notes, and other ephemera in Oppenheimer’s papers. All these types of documents—letters, memos, telegrams, notes, and other ephemera—play the same role in my research because they, unlike a private journal or a publication intended for the general public, are written for a specific audience.

Since that realization inspired by Furst’s talk, I’ve been more focused in my research use of letters and other materials. I think about my usage as fitting a few primary categories:

  1. Language and vocabulary development. This aligns with Furst’s suggestions in recreating a time period but has also helped me in creating verisimilitude by learning the military and scientific jargon of the era.
  2. Events confirmation. This helps me align my novel’s plot with the recorded events.
  3. Character development. Each document reveals aspects of the person who wrote it and also of the person who was intended to receive it.
Samuel Goudsmit to Robert Bacher (CalTech Archives)

A concrete example of the type of historically accurate vernacular that I needed to develop in my novel is the list of codenames assigned to important Manhattan Project scientists. Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, for example, were assigned the names Farmer and Baker respectively. The use of code names, primarily for communications and travel purposes, is described in a number of books and biographies about the era. In the richly annotated book Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, authors Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner include a letter from Oppenheimer to the project’s military head, General Leslie Groves, wherein the left-leaning academic encourages the security-obsessed military man to consider assigning code names by saying, “it would be preferable if such well known names were not put in circulation.” Not only do I better understand the practice of codenames, but also the way in which the practice was discussed.

From Max Planck (CalTech Archives)

The second way in which letters have played a role in my novel has been to develop my understanding of the sequencing of events associated with the Manhattan Project. The beginning of the project itself is associated with a specific letter, signed by Albert Einstein in October 1939 and hand-carried to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s response was to create a committee to investigate the feasibility of this research. For a program that would ultimately consume $2B dollars, the Manhattan Project got off to a very modest start, spending in the neighborhood of $5K in 1939 and 1940. The papers of Robert Bacher in CalTech’s archives detail the extent of this work. Even more important, by the letters’ very nature—one-to-one communication between the involved scientists—the documents point to the fact that none of the involved parties anticipated the scope of what was to come. That in-the-moment record can be even more important than the hindsight of a historical text that looks back long after the events.

The third letter-use category that I have defined for my own work has been their use in character development, both fictional and historical. Of particular interest to me, for instance, was a recommendation letter written by Richard Feynman, which I encountered in the papers of Robert Oppenheimer in the Library of Congress. Much has been written about Feynman’s quirky, non-conformist character (including much in his own voice, in books that he penned). And yet, after making my way through most of Feynman’s books and several books where Feynman appears, nothing could make his unconventional ways as tangible as a single letter—written for a single person, Oppenheimer—wherein Feynman suggests that a candidate for a job (at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies) will make his greatest contribution by being fantastic at parties.

Other aspects of working with letters in archives can be helpful as well. Recently, I listened to Knox College Professor Doug Wilson discuss how Abraham Lincoln’s predilection for producing multiple drafts of letters has actually influenced the course of scholarship. In a somewhat unusual situation, the final copies of Lincoln’s letters have been archived at the Library of Congress, while the drafts are at the Huntington Library. By comparing the two collections, Wilson discovered that the Library of Congress actually had gaps in its Lincoln Collection, that drafts existed where there was no remaining final copy in the Library of Congress. My research thus far indicates that this tendency to produce multiple drafts of letters (usually one or two handwritten versions that were then typed up, sometimes with a carbon copy, perhaps by a secretary) is also common in the papers of Manhattan Project scientists. While this hasn’t been consciously reflected in my novel by characters writing drafts of letters, it has provided me with an insight into how these people thought, how they planned and revised. It has also caused me to wonder on several occasions about how many of my colleagues draft and revise emails before sending them, as I often do.

Letter from Albert Einstein, 1913 (Huntington Library)

I’ll conclude this post as a librarian myself, with some practical advice regarding working with letters in archives. First, call ahead and make an appointment. Particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, archives are overworked and understaffed. During our most recent archival visit to CalTech, drop-ins were turned away. In addition, librarians and archivists are best able to help those who help themselves. By contacting them prior to your visit, they will probably ask you for specifics regarding the materials that you wish to see. In larger archives, materials are often stored offsite. By planning ahead, those materials can be brought to the work area prior to your visit.

Also, think ahead about copyright. In some collections, statements about copyright are included. In others, not so much. Ask questions so that you know the extent to which you can quote or otherwise use documents and how you should credit that use. Depending on the date it was written, the copyright holder of a personal letter, for instance, is usually the writer of that letter, not the recipient or whoever happens to have it in her attic.

Lastly, be cognizant of the age of the materials that you handle. Tearing a letter in half as you pull it out of the box is a rotten way to start a research visit. Holding thin, fragile letters conveys a sense of the preciousness of these materials and their contents and a sense of proximity to the time in which they were written, as if you can hear the letter-writer’s footsteps receding down the hallway.

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