Among the most famous and extensive American history projects of the first half of the 20th century are the interviews of formerly enslaved African-Americans; these interviews are more commonly known as the WPA slave narratives. Collected by writers and historians employed by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration in the midst of the Great Depression, these retrospective recollections by ex-slaves offer, depending on who you ask, some of the subject’s most invaluable or controversial primary sources.
For reference, I’ve linked to an excellent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the project, provided by the Library of Congress, which houses the narrative collection: (I can’t overstate how excellent this analysis is: for those of us who get ridiculously excited by application of historical methods to primary sources, this is gold):
As noted in the linked article, this collection inspires considerable debate among historians. Some applaud the narrative’s unique existence: no other former slave-holding nation attempted such a wide-ranging collection of retrospective testimony from its formerly enslaved population, and the recollections are, by definition, primary sources. In addition, the early academic historiography (1930s – 1960s) concerning African-American slavery tended to ignore, almost entirely, the perspective of the enslaved, which contributed to what is now regarded as a highly flawed paternalistic interpretation of the peculiar institution.
Other historians refuse entirely to use the narratives; arguing that they suffer from too many historical methods issues to provide an accurate or credible account of African-American life under slavery. The advanced age of the interviewees, the racial disparity between the interviewer and interviewee, the limited geographic area from which recollections were collected, are all cited, along with other reasons, as undermining the narratives’ credibility and, therefore, its usefulness.
What on earth, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with the Beatles, and Beatles historiography?
The long answer (because there is no short answer) is that historical methods and source analysis can and are applied to highly varying subjects, from the WPA slave narratives to the Beatles, and beyond. In the Senior Seminar class I teach, my students write extensive research papers; I’ve read papers on everything from the Shinzingumi, aka the last samurai, of Japan to Soviet utilization of propaganda during the Space Race, to whether King John of England has been unfairly maligned by history. The marvelous aspect of historical methods is that you can apply them to such widely ranging topics; across cultures, eras, individuals, etc. At the beginning of the class, I provide my students with a basic historical methods checklist to refer to when analyzing their primary and secondary sources:
Historical Methods Standards Basic Checklist:
Is the source primary or secondary?
Is the source retrospective, or contemporaneous? If it’s retrospective, how much time has elapsed between the event and the recounting?
How old is the source? If it is a secondary source, was it written too close in time to the event to achieve a necessary level of historical distance?
Is there a gender and/or racial difference between the subject and the interviewer and/or author? If so, does this difference notably impact the interviewer and/or author’s interpretations or judgments? In the case of a female subject, has her historiography been shaped predominantly by males? In the case of a minority subject, has their historiography predominantly been told by non-minorities?
Is there a racial/ethnic element to either the primary sources, or the secondary ones?
Does the source come from an organization with an agenda to promote, or a particular reputation?
Does the secondary source provide documentation and/or a bibliography? Do they provide a method for the reader to identify a source’s origin and credibility?
Does the source acknowledge opposing points of view?
Are moral judgments applied? If so, are they applied reasonably and in a balanced way to all figures, or are there double standards?
How available were archives and/or essential primary sources to the secondary author? Were documents that are now regarded as crucial inaccessible at the time of publication?
Is known evidence omitted in order to present a preferred interpretation?
Does the secondary source support a discredited narrative?
Is credible evidence that is contradictory to the author’s conclusions acknowledged or ignored?
Are the different types of evidence designated? Is hearsay depicted as fact?
Are issues of authorial agenda addressed, or acknowledged?
Is retrospective information, unavailable to the historical figures at the time, used to judge their actions?
What is the agenda behind the source’s creation?
What was the political climate surrounding the historical event/person? What was the political climate surrounding the time period of the primary/secondary source depiction the historical event/person?
What is the significance of this source to your subject’s overall historiography? Is it one of the best known and influential works on the subject, or not? Is its reputation poor or credible?
Is the author biased? Bias can stem from reasons of ideology, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, or simply personal preference.
These questions only scrape the surface, but provide a good starting point for source analysis. While I’ve commented on this before, and am in danger of repeating myself, the utter failure by so many, for so long, in Beatles historiography to apply even basic source analysis to both primary and secondary sources truly astonished me once I delved into their scholarship.
All of which leads me to a question for the blog’s readers: What primary or secondary sources can you think of in Beatles historiography that still need such analysis? There are various interviews – Paul’s with Chris Salewicz, John’s 1980 Playboy interview with David Sheff – that could certainly use more extensive analysis than they’ve been given.
Of course, there are also secondary sources by the hundreds. What group or individual biographies, or other books, would you like to see analyzed according to the checklist? Was there a source I discussed in The Beatles and the Historians that you would like to see further analysis on? (Bear in mind that I can’t step on my own copyrighted material; meaning, I can offer new analysis, but not extensively quote my own stuff. That belongs to my publisher, not to me). Any new books that you believe need attention, either because of their quality, or before they perpetuate tired stereotypes and outdated narratives?
I’m throwing the door open to discussion, ideas, and suggestions on which sources need this analysis. Or, if you have questions or comments regarding the Library of Congress article the WPA narratives, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment and leave your thoughts.
7 thoughts on “Historical Methods Checklist”
Love this post, Erin. Thanks for sharing it.
Seems to me that historians who dismiss the slave narratives out of hand are committing the same error of personal bias they claim the narratives embody. Why wouldn’t they apply the standards checklist–cross-checking the narrative with empirical evidence and secondary sources?
At any rate, back to your question: “What primary or secondary sources can you think of in Beatles historiography that still need such analysis?”
My answer, at first blush, is Lewisohn’s interview with Alfred Lennon’s friend, Billy Hall, regarding the veracity of what is euphemistically referred to as “the Blackpool incident”: that John was asked to choose between his parents at age 5 while on a “trip” with Alfred to Blackpool. Lewisohn concluded that the event did not occur.
I’ll try to summarize my thoughts, using your standards checkist as a guide:
The conventional narrative, as told by Alfred, is hardly flattering, and as such cannot adequately support claims of deliberate bias. (Indeed, he could have spun a much different, self-serving tale to Hunter Davies–he could have told Davies what Hall told Lewisohn, for example–but didn’t.)
Alfred’s account is not an exception to, but fits with, other contemporaneous data we know about John’s early life and the attendant chaos.
Lewisohn’s conclusion may be a reflection of his own authorial bias, prompted by a rush to judgement, all in an effort to debunk a Beatle “Myth.”
I found this summary from Tim Riley, vis a vis the NYT:
A few things stand out for me in Riley’s analysis: First–Hall based his opinion on what Alfred said, in summary, AFTER the fact. Alfred didn’t describe the event to Hall, in all its assumed gory detail; he merely stated its conclusion. A perfunctory summary of the encounter by Alfred to Hall doesn’t mean that the encounter didn’t occur. Second–according to Alfred, he called John into the room during his discussion with an irate Julia. I don’t recollect that Hall ever refuted this. It seems logical, then, that John was being summoned for a purpose.
Of course I don’t know whether Alfred’s account is accurate, but I tend to trust that his account is more credible–more reflective of the event– than Hall’s.
“Seems to me that historians who dismiss the slave narratives out of hand are committing the same error of personal bias they claim the narratives embody.”
I don’t think they dismiss it out of hand, so much as not incorporating into their research, if that makes sense. One of the researchers mentioned who refuses to use the WPA narratives at least addresses the methodological issues with the narratives; he doesn’t ignore their very existence. (I don’t know whether he addressed the issue in his book, or an independent article, etc). Ignoring that the source exists — now that, from what I know, would be inexcusable.
When I was at the MVHC earlier this year, one conference chair (the kind who’s more interested in proving how smart he is than actually providing guidance or advice to students who were presenting papers — seriously, he took up half the Q&A time pontificating) indicated that no one should use Julius Caesar as a source because of Caesar’s well known habit of exaggeration. My department head, who specializes in Classical History, disagreed with him, and in all my reading of historical methods, I’ve never run across one who advocates ignoring a primary source’s very existence. So I tend to agree with you; apply the methodology, but don’t utterly refuse to incorporate the primary source into your work.
Funny you mention that example, Karen: Tim Riley was at the Pepper Conference last year, and after my presentation, he specifically asked me what I thought about the Alfred Lennon/Bill Hall scenario. Riley was less than gushing over Lewisohn’s methodology on that issue.
I told him that, methodologically, Lewisohn had two choices, once he found Hall/listened to his testimony: either incorporate Hall’s story into the narrative and offer both versions (Alfred’s vs. Hall’s) but not indicate a preference, allowing the reader to choose or offer both versions, and then, as author, pick the one that he, Lewisohn, regarded as more credible. Lewisohn chose option two, and I think that was really Riley’s main issue.
His noting that Lewisohn perhaps has an agenda in wanting to belief Hall’s story over Alfred’s because it reinforces Lewisohn’s own reputation as the de-mythologizer is a valid one. Of course, so is the issue that Riley unquestioningly incorporates the Davies version story into his own Lennon bio, meaning that, if Lewisohn is correct and Hall’s version is the correct one, Riley unknowingly related inaccurate information in his own work. But his final point — that, regardless of which way it happened, if John believed it happened, it impacted him psychologically — is a good one. I don’t think you need the implicit trauma of the Blackpool saga to explain John’s various psychological issues — I think there’s, unfortunately, more than enough stuff in John’s childhood to explain it even without the “Tug of Love” scene — but John could be highly suggestible to misremembered history (Allen Klein and “Eleanor Rigby”, anyone?) and if he believed it — which evidently he did — that could be powerful.
Especially since John would have been grappling with this story in his psyche front and center as a result of the Authorized Biography, so in the 1967-68 era, as his psychological health is already declining. I think the impact of the Authorized Biography in dredging up these issues (John’s LSD use; his loss of dominance in the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, his de-facto loss of leadership in the band; this “tug of love” story, the obvious apathy in his marriage to Cynthia, etc.) and placing them front and center to both John and the world has been underestimated and unexplored. I’ve always considered that a great question, albeit an unanswerable one: how much/in what ways did the Authorized Biography actually contribute to the breakup? In my opinion, quite a lot.
Right—I recall you mentioning that.
Imho, I don’t think there was much of a dilemma for Lewisohn; I would have presented Hall’s opinion and then proceed to write what I wrote here. 😬
Anyhow: You bring up an interesting point about Davies’ book, and the possible impact it had on John.
I recall reading an interview with Davies (or was it in the preamble to a later edition of his book? I can’t recall) in which he discussed the book’s heavy editing.
With respect to John’s childhood, Davies said John was concerned about hurting Mimi (or more likely, incurring her wrath) if he portrayed his life as anything other than rosy under Mimi’s care. John’s concern was well founded: Mimi insisted on the inclusion of “but he was happy as the day was long” after Davies detailed John’s fractured childhood.
This struck me.
Throughout his life, John was unable to acknowledge his trauma. First, as a child, because Mimi believed white lies about John’s parents were better for him than the truth (and, I suspect, because she wanted to ensure young John’s attachment to her as his surrogate parent);
Second, as a young adult, whose superstardom and image didn’t permit it;
And then as a grown man, because he still felt he had to protect his surrogate parent at his own psychological expense.
I’m not surprised his first album is full of songs about repressed pain—listening to the song “My Mummy’s Dead”—added at the album’s end, kind of snuck in, simple in its rendition, sung little boy style, almost apologetic—exemplifies this so well.
Actually, my impression is that Davies has gone in the opposite direction: rather than acknowledge any heavy editing, he’s argued that in only two places — Julia’s affairs, and the “happy as the day is long” quote — was there direct interference from any of the Beatles. Which makes sense; Davies doesn’t want his book to come across as a whitewash. How verifiable that is, well … I believe Norman had full access to Davies’ notes when writing Shout!; I’m unsure how accessible they were/have been for later authors.
“With respect to John’s childhood, Davies said John was concerned about hurting Mimi (or more likely, incurring her wrath) if he portrayed his life as anything other than rosy under Mimi’s care.”
I recall that as well, regarding John’s motivation for the edits he requested. And wow — your point about this being an example of John not being allowed to (healthily) confront the trauma he’d been exposed to with his mother/father/Mimi — is spot on.
This brings to my mind the infamous letter Mimi wrote John (wasn’t in the mid/late 70s?) accusing him of neglecting her while the other Beatles had lavished their parents with money; of having an enormous ego; of being manipulated by so-called friends who only liked him for his money. Mimi seems to always see herself as the victim in her relationship with John.
….and also in terms of the Beatles’ own affairs while touring, yes. I didn’t mean to imply it was heavily edited elsewhere. Thanks for clarifying that.
I was thinking the same thing. (For those interested: here’s the source.)
It actually was a transcription of a tape Mimi sent to John after he wrote her, asking for information regarding the family geneology.
Here it is:
Yikes indeed. There are legitimate issues/concerns in there that Mimi is presenting, but they’re conveyed in such a narcissistic, unhealthily toxic way that they lose any helpfulness John may have gotten from them. A valid caution — people may be using you your for your money — instead is conveyed as — the only reason anyone would ever want to be around you is because of your money.
It appears that John learned more than a few of his unhealthy behaviors — his sense of victimization, his hyperbolic tendencies, his zero sum view of emotional attachment, (taking care of Alfred is a deliberate strike at Mimi) — at Mimi’s knee. There was an article last week in Time emphasizing how more and more psychologists are arguing that empathy is a learned, not innate, behavior. Given his occasional bullying tendencies, and the contents of this letter, it appears John didn’t learn much about empathy from Mimi.