I’m breaking my hiatus for this post.
This is the least convenient time for me to do so, esp. given that I assume it’s going to prompt some serious reaction, at least some of it negative.
Why is this the least convenient time?
My mother-in-law is in a hospital in Chicago, struggling with serious health issues, and we are taking care of their house: mowing, cleaning, etc.
I have research papers to grade and must finish before Tuesday, when I will have Final exams to grade: my grading window closes next week,
I’m in the midst of potty training a three year old.
My best friend of 30 years is in town, staying with us while her mother has a triple-bypass.
And I stayed up late last night to watch Round One of the NFL draft. (As a Chiefs fan, I’m moderately pleased. If I were a Jets fan, I’d be over the moon).
The reason I list these issues is not to extract sympathy from readers; it is to underline how serious I regard this issue. Given these current demands on my time, I would not break this hiatus for a discussion I regard as being of lesser importance.
Here is why I temporarily, at least, broke my hiatus:
Let me preface this by first stating that I am going to presume that Lewisohn is taking a more casual approach in this interview than he would were he sitting down to professionally evaluate these memoirs, source analysis-wise, for his actual book. I have done the same; the tone of this blog is deliberately less academic than my professional writing, which has at times led me to misstep and/or need to clarify my writing.
Having taken that caveat into account, my evaluation of these sources is as follows:
These are memoirs. As such, they are among the most, if not *the* most, subjective primary sources historians must deal with. Gilbert Garraghan, James Gaddis and Marc Bloch, as well as James Starrt, all discuss the very serious methodological issues regarding memoirs, and how they are among the most problematic primary sources.
The fact remains: They are primary sources. They cannot be dismissed.
They can and must be evaluated. They can and must have their contradictions addressed. Credibility issues should be noted, with the acknowledgment of the serious methodological issue that Lewisohn regards, rightfully, as so problematic: that many of them offer memories and versions of events regarding individuals (most notably John Lennon and Brian Epstein) who, due to their deaths, were incapable of responding to the claims made in those memoirs. That does weaken their claims to credibility in certain areas and on certain subjects.
Any fair evaluation of them according to source analysis must acknowledge that weakness. But they cannot be dismissed, wholesale, as terrible. (Additionally, other authors with experience in source analysis, including You Never Give me Your Money’s Peter Doggett, and The Beatles: The Annotated Bibliography‘s Michael Brocken and Melissa Davis, find a certain amount of source value in these memoirs, as do I). I cannot emphasize this enough: even the most biased, self-serving, badly written and conveniently timed memoir is still a primary source. Methodologically, therefore, it cannot be ignored.
In graduate school, on a research paper on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, I had to read Vyacheslav Molotov’s memoir, published in the 1960s. Suffice it to say, its version of many events, particularly the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was self-serving to the point of fictionality and contradicted by other evidence, much of which only became available following the fall of the Soviet Union. It was also published over a decade following the death of Josef Stalin, a key figure in Molotov’s life and memoir and, additionally, was published decades before any openness was available to certain areas of Soviet Archives.
In the source analysis I provided, I noted these serious structural weaknesses. I stated that Molotov’s version of events was highly problematic, and why. Then I put that evaluation under my primary sources section of my paper’s Annotated Bibliography. Acknowledging a memoir’s weaknesses is necessary: Lewisohn points out a crucial weakness with these memoirs in the above comment. But according to historical methods, their status as primary sources demands acknowledgement by historians who study that subject. Acknowledging a memoir’s existence is not endorsing its contents or credibility: it is a fundamental requirement of historical methods.
Questions and comments are welcomed and will eventually receive responses although, in all honesty, it may take some time.