After a rare four-day hiatus, I imagine my reader asking, “What gives?” This would be a swell intro to a heartachingly warm essay on Thanksgiving, but I’m in a charitable enough mood that I’ll spare my reader that pleasure.
Anyway, the four-day vacation was occasioned by a writing project — no, check that: a research project, mostly — on various figures in Irish-American history. The work, which I’d describe as incredibly rewarding except for the money, is for a pictorial history of Irish Americans that I believe is coming out next year. I’m one of a small group of writers doing mini-essays on a variety of subjects and people: Irish women in the (American) Civil War; the Irish-American lawyer who helped bring down (Scottish-American) Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies; the tensions between poor immigrant (“shanty”) Irish and striving, upwardly mobile (“lace-curtain”) Irish; Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne and his famous creation, Mr. Dooley; and Nellie Bly, whom you might call the first of the muckrakers.
The challenge of all this is to say a lot about remarkable people in very few words. To do that confidently, I feel like I need to have a good basic understanding of who they were and what they did. Which is where the research comes in; and of course that’s a joy, except for the money involved. I guess I already said that.
Still, beyond the money, there’s the chance encounter with some compelling person or story or piece of historical research (someone else’s) that is a reward in itself. Today’s best example: I noted that there’s a disagreement on the birth date of Nellie Bly (nee Elizabeth Jane Cochran): some sources give it as May 5, 1867, others as May 5, 1864. In trying to resolve this in poring over the sometimes poorly written and produced websites that mention Bly, I noticed that the Wikipedia entry goes with the 1864 date, a fact that was footnoted. The note, in turn, referred to “Kroeger;” that’s Brooke Kroeger, author of a 1994 Bly biography. I had come across her book, “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist,” both on Google Books and at Amazon. But since the text wasn’t searchable, and my task allows scant time to do something radical like go to a library, I skipped over it for more accessible resources. After seeing the Wikipedia entry, I searched Kroeger as well as Bly and landed on the biographer’s website. And bingo: Kroeger includes the text of a beautifully written 1996 article she wrote for the Quarterly of the National Archives that lays out the state of Bly scholarship (virtually nonexistent) when she set out to write the biography as well as a wealth of absorbing detail on Bly’s life and career that she discovered by way of the Archives.
An editor I worked with once referred to the “pure pleasure” of reading a well-crafted story. That’s what I felt reading Kroeger’s story of discovering hidden dimensions of her subject’s life: a deep satisfaction and admiration at seeing someone conscientious and artful at work. Now I need to take the time to read her book.