I knew it was serious when I went blind. I shambled out of the office one day around 5 p.m. and the sun hit me. I stood blinking like an oversized mole, dates, figures and edits spinning across my eyes. What had happened to me? Those of you who are researchers know full well. I had grown to inhabit the dark zone – the zone of obscure names, obscurer dates, and the blurring of past and present.
Deadlines rushing towards us just make it worse. Huddled in it over the desk, it strikes. Who was the Russian consul in Chicago in 1906? Is it J.H. or J.A. Cook? Screams from the neighboring room. “Where is 1907? I’ve lost 1907!!” “Where’s the Schroeder folder? Oh my God, it’s got meatballs on it!” We look at books from the library no one has taken out since 1947. I swear we can tell the decade of an obscure anarchist paper by its smell. Free Society? musty, with a hint of apples. Mother Earth? more lemony. Land and Liberty? – ah, as rare as the smell of roses on the darkest day in winter.
And the nights. The scream of the cat hurtling from the bed as you sit bolt up right at 4 a.m. thinking, “I knew it was Jessie Ashley!” And, God forbid, those nights in the bathroom, pieces of paper scattered around in an order known only to the demented. My son hasn’t seen our front room for months. He’s gazed at piles of books, pamphlets, papers, bits of paper in puzzlement then with a profound despair worthy of Schopenhauer himself.
Of course there are two statements guaranteed to reduce any researcher to a psychopathic frothing: “It’s not really hard work, is it?” and “You’re so lucky to be able to do that!” Twelve hours a day searching for someone’s birthdate, only to find three biographers have three different dates? Lucky? Get a life!! (Rule 1 of researching: never trust anyone until you’ve read the original yourself.) My friends in England can’t understand why I haven’t got a tan! “How does the Golden Gate Bridge look at sunset?” they ask. “Is it in Mother Earth?” I snap.
You develop a Gradgrind insistence on facts. Ideas? – pah! They’re for the chattering classes. There are no ideas here. Check the prosecution details of Moses Harmon in 1905. How many pages does Anarchism have? Where was Emma in December 1909? (New York, actually.) Alright, I grant you there are excitements. A wonderful photograph of James F. Morton, a phrase of Emma’s that suddenly rings true, discovering an old pamphlet for the first time (just how many did John Coryell write?)
Above all though, it’s the work. The researching of the patterns of radical life, the links in the chain that show all types of improbable connections. We are rescuing men and women from, as E.P. Thompson writes, “the enormous condescension of posterity.” On our desk, ill-lit by lamp-light, they come alive again. Fluttering shades become real, putting Emma Goldman in a context, making her part of a world that once existed and that we are recreating in our new millenium – however imperfectly.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to explore the vagaries of Single Tax. Anyone know anything about J.J. Pastoriza of Houston, around 1909?
[Barry Pateman, Associate Editor, has been working with the Emma Goldman Papers since June 1999, and had been the Project’s research associate in the U.K since 1989.]
From: Open Road: the newsletter of the Emma Goldman Papers (Winter 2000).