24 April 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 11 comments

About once per week, I get a call from J. D. about something he has found on Google’s book search site. He spends a lot of time trolling the complete versions of the public domain books that can be found there. He will call me to tip me off to some really obscure source that is of interest, and a fair number of them pertain to Ulric Dahlgren. Yesterday was an especially good one.

Abraham Lincoln had three personal secretaries. Two of them are well-known, John Hay and John G. Nicolay. The third is not well-known at all. His name was William O. Stoddard, and Stoddard wrote a memoir of his time at the White House titled Inside the White House During War Times. There was a nice anecdote in the book that recounted a dance that Ulric Dahlgren attended in Washington, D. C. in February 1864, just after being fitted for a prosthetic leg. Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts this incident in her book Team of Rivals, but I had been unable to locate her source, so my working draft cited to Goodwin’s book. When J. D. tipped me off the Stoddard book, I now not only had the primary source, I also had three good quotes to use that Goodwin had not employed. I now cite to the primary source, which is always my preference when writing.

The problem is that this sort of thing keeps happening. Folks are constantly feeding me tidbits when they know I’m working on projects, and I really appreciate their thinking of me. Usually, they’re items worth having, so I’m grateful to get them. The problem, however, is that it raises a very legitimate question: when do you have enough? When do you say enough already? I’ve been writing the Dahlgren bio on and off for fourteen–almost fifteen–months now. There have been long gaps due to things going on in my life, but I’ve been diligently pressing forward with this work and it’s pretty much finished at this point. However every time that I think it’s done, something else surfaces like the Stoddard material that J. D. tipped me off to yesterday.

My old friend Clark B. “Bud” Hall has been working on a study of the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station for something like twenty years now. For about ten of those years, I’ve been steadily feeding him primary source material on the battle as I find it. Bud already has hundreds–perhaps even thousands–of sources on the battle, and it really becomes a question of decreasing returns. When do you say “Enough”?

A basic proposition is that you will never get EVERY source pertaining to a particular topic. It’s impossible because of the vast amount of material that remains in private hands or is far too difficult to find because it’s in some incredibly obscure place where nobody would ever think to look. That means that, at some point, the historian has to say, “Okay, I’ve given this my best shot” and pull the trigger. I think I’m now at that point with Dahlgren. There is one thing I’ve been looking for, and if it turns up, I will gladly have it, but other than that, I think I can safely say that I have more primary source material on Ulric Dahlgren than anyone else has ever accumulated. Consequently, I’ve adopted the attitude that if someone else can surpass my research, then bully for them, and I will be the first one to shake his or her hand and say “job well done”.

There is clearly a point where enough is truly enough, and with the exception of locating this one particiular newspaper account apparently written by Ulric Dahlgren just a few weeks before his death that has turned out to be pretty much impossible to find, I’ve reached my “enough is enough” point with this project. I’ve been searching for that article for several years now, and I’ve pretty much given up at this point after reviewing dozens of papers. It’s literally like searching for a needle in a haystack, and I’ve reached my point of frustration with it. That means it’s about time to pull the trigger and declare the project complete.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Tue 24th Apr 2007 at 8:58 pm

    LOL, Eric… and you know there will always be the time that once a project goes to print and it’s too late to add anything, that final elusive source (previously known or not) will surface. Like that article. Danged if you won’t find it the day it’s too late :(

    I’ve been amazed at the books I’ve been finding. I believe there are several hundred thousand amongst the different online book sites, so I’ve been accumulating vast amounts of usable material. All of which has Karen shaking her head every time I come home with ANOTHER ream of printed stuff. “Where are you gonna put that, now?””

    Hey, I have two acres of land. I can always build another wing… :)

    J.D.

  2. Don
    Tue 24th Apr 2007 at 9:32 pm

    Eric,
    Well, enough is enough once you have it all, and it sounds like you’re about there with Dahlgren. Which means I can look forward to reading another book written this century before long, I hope! 8^)

    JD,
    I’m now hooked on the online public domain book sites that you tipped on your site. Always great stuff to be found there, though it can be a free time black hole. Yesterday was Army Register day, for some reason. It’s going to be really difficult to sneak a couple of shelves of binders into the house and pretend they were there all along….

    Don

  3. Tue 24th Apr 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Nah, it works, Don – “Honey, don’t you remember? I’ve had these binders now, for – let’s see – at least 10 years. You honestly don’t recall seeing them here? You don’t, huh? Hhmm. Well, I swear they’ve always been here. What did you say, Sweetie? I’m a what? Hey, I thought we agreed to watch our language in the house…”

    :)

    J.D.

  4. Steve Basic
    Tue 24th Apr 2007 at 11:48 pm

    Great Post Eric, and all I can think of is just where the heck was J.D. back in the 80’s when I had to do research all by myself in College? LOL :)

    I am no writer but I can see what a dilemma this could be. And it explains quite a bit in answering the question why it takes people so long to write a book. That said, while you can’t use everything, you guys have the knack of finding stuff that has been forgotten, and in it’s own way, it is very helpful to those who will follow in your footsteps.

    Hope all is well.

    Steve

  5. Lanny Thomas Tanton
    Wed 25th Apr 2007 at 12:08 am

    Dear Eric,

    You do indeed have a problem, but it is a common one. One leadership seminar I attended made much out of having a time line (a fancy phrase for deadline). Successful leaders, we were told, always have one. What was it that a relative of Murphy said, “Work expands to the amount of time given to it”?

    Perfection is impossible in this world. And while all of us are willing to admit this, the perfectionistic streak in us urges us to think that perhaps, just this once, we will be the exception. Perhaps you can feel some comfort if you can answer some simple questions like:

    1. “Have I covered all known and major sources?”

    2. “Have I added something significant to the already existing literature that would justify the purchase of my book?”

    3. “Has the new information I am receiving regarding my subject moved from a steady flow to a trickle and catch-as-catch can kind of thing?”

    4. “Can I keep on hand any new information I receive after the book has gone to the publisher so that I can include it in a second edition–newly revised and updated?”

    I am completely confident that your book will be up to your usual standards of documentation. I am further confident that with your attitude of due diligence that whenever you decide to “pull the trigger” it will be justified.

    Best wishes always,
    Lanny

  6. Wed 25th Apr 2007 at 8:04 am

    Eric – I never say “enough is enough” until the day I turn in the manuscript. Once, I even revised a chapter after turning a manuscript in. I had received some great material and called my editor to stop the process.

    Regards,
    Michael

  7. Dave Kelly
    Wed 25th Apr 2007 at 8:48 am

    Pope Julius II: “When will you be finished?”
    Michaelangelo: “When I’ma done.” (Said between bites of spinach calzone, contents of which dribble on his emminence, 140 feet below…)

    I’m having a vu jadee attack here. Didn’t you just make this same wail over Rushs’s Lancers, and Plenty of blame as you beat up your publisher to rewrite stuff in the press? ROFLMAO

    By the by. Did you see the last exchange of gunfire between Long and Sears re the Dahlgren Raid. Sears complimented you by name, and said your research was gonna slam dunk speculative conspiracies entertained by Long. (No pressure on ya, of course…)

  8. Paul Taylor
    Wed 25th Apr 2007 at 10:17 am

    It’s never enough… forge on right up to the last possible moment. With one book, I was able to insert some new material even after receiving the galley proofs, though I had to work it into the “white areas” at the end of a chapter while making sure that it would not alter the page numbers.

    I know we’ve joked about this “phenomenon” a number of times, to the point that it’s now almost a truism — “The most sure-fire way to discover previously unknown or unseen primary sources is to publicly declare the ms. complete and turn it in to the publisher.” :-)

    Paul

  9. Wed 25th Apr 2007 at 11:18 am

    I was just recently commenting about this ‘problem’ to my wife. I wanted to do some research to shed some light on a gray area in my subject’s career. Just needed some documentation to support my conclusions or disprove them.

    It was like reaching into a bottomless cookie jar and now I have a substantial amount of paper sitting in my computer room whcih I have to read through and assimilate.

    I’m not an author, but spent years in the market research community where the same question pops up; ‘how much data is enough?’

  10. Art Bergeron
    Thu 26th Apr 2007 at 8:12 am

    If I had waited until I had found “everything,” I would not have published my book on Louisiana Confederate units. It was a project I began as an undergraduate and worked on without great intensity for about 20 years. Several friends finally convinced me that I needed to produce a manuscript before they died (although they were not elderly), so I did. I had reached a pretty good comfort level with what research I had done and, in retrospect, probably would not have made many revisions with new information gleaned since its publication. And I am still gathering. Perhaps a revised and expanded version will find its way into print one day.

  11. Dave Powell
    Sat 28th Apr 2007 at 7:00 am

    That’s the key: no need to stop collecting. There is always the revised edition to think of…

    After all, Eric, how many times have you touched on the same stuff? Forgotten Cav Actions, for example. You just had that debate. New info makes the choice easier, does it not?

    Dave Powell

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