Blogs > Cliopatria > When Can I Stop?

Sep 28, 2004 9:39 am

When Can I Stop?

I'm a little past the dissertation stage, but this is in the spirit of Manan Ahmed's declaration of Dissertation Week. Manan's submission is here. Sharon Howard's submission is here, and Brandon Watson's is here. Ed Cohn explains his hesitation here. Sharon recommends that he read this at Culture Cat.

I have two professional colleagues who launched a major project years ago. It's been in process with substantial institutional support and major external funding for over a decade. My friends are excellent scholars and, as such, are extremely ambitious. When they finish their work, it will shape the contours of a whole field of historical inquiry in new ways for decades to come. The problem is that, after ten years, they still haven't published much of anything. They have a fine website, where you can see work in progress. They have published an article or two. But the deadline for publishing the first of many projected volumes has been repeatedly delayed. Last time I checked, the website said the first volume would be published in 2003. They don't even bother to update the postponement any more. It's something we don't discuss.

The problem isn't that my friends aren't getting any work done. The problem is that their vision is very broad and that every discrete matter they come across raises lots of interesting questions and that they feel obliged to track down all the answers. The problem is that they won't let go of a product until it is perfected. One of the best teachers I had in graduate school was similarly afflicted. He had published major articles in his field in every major journal. It was rumored that he had a book manuscript which would be the most important history of the ****** ********** yet published. He retired over a decade ago and is, now, I think, in a nursing home. To my knowledge, he never submitted the manuscript for publication anywhere.

My problem is that I'm beginning to identify with my anonymous friends and my unnamed teacher. When can I stop? I'm working on this wonderfully smart and colorful Afro-Baptist preacher, Vernon Johns (1892-1965). He's of interest because he has important ties to the challenges both to school segregation in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and to the segregated busses in Montgomery, Alabama. Moreover, he's got a very complicated family background story that is a key, I've thought, to explaining how, in the face of massive social pressure, he rather aggressively challenged social conventions.

It's been a difficult research track because he was rather indifferent to his legacy. His papers were twice destroyed. But I'm one helluva researcher, if I do say so myself, and I keep learning more and more. Take what I'm learning about his home in Prince Edward County, Virginia, for example. Prince Edward County became notorious for its devotion to racial segregation in the 1960s, when it was the only county in the United States to close its public school systems for years in order to evade the court's desegregation orders. Based on that reputation, I've been inclined to emphasize how little emancipation and reconstruction had changed things in a backwater like Prince Edward County. There was plenty of evidence for that, but I keep learning more and more.

Two examples: In 1898, when Vernon Johns was six years old, his white grandfather was sentenced to hang for killing a white field hand. I'd plowed through an awful lot of local history about Prince Edward County to tell that story because I think it's a key to understanding Johns himself, but it wasn't until I recently read Suzanne Lebsock's A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial that I knew that the jailer in Prince Edward County was an African American. That's pretty late in the 19th century for African Americans to be holding public office and, of course, white local historians had made no record of the fact. Now, there's this featured over on HNN's mainpage at Breaking News. I'd known about Prince Edward County's Israel Hill, a community of African Americans freed by Richard Randolph at his death in 1833 and settled on land that they owned, because W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about it in 1898. But now, Melvin Patrick Ely at William and Mary has published Israel on the Appomatox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War. Johns grew up in Darlington Heights, not far from Israel Hill. This map traces the retreat of Robert E. Lee's army from Petersburg to Appomattox Courthouse through both of those communities. Now, I have to conjure with the complicating lingering influence of an ante-bellum freedom in which black men could sue white men over property claims and, even, marry the daughter of a prosperous white farmer. Still, the question is,"When can I stop."

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 10/2/2004

All of the many Ralphs thank you!

Manan Ahmed - 10/2/2004

My personal opinion is that Ralph is in himself an amalgamation of several anonymous bloggers. If, he truly was a singular entity than I profess that I have NO idea how he even finds a fraction of the cool stuff that he brings to our attention here, engage in conversations at many different locations and still have time to breathe. Kudos, Ralph-people! Kudos.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/1/2004

Good Point. I can't always vouch for the accuracy of the clock, but I do keep odd hours by most people's standards. That became a habit when I first found that it was easier to find uninterrupted time for writing when most other people were asleep.

Van L. Hayhow - 10/1/2004

That may well be true. I have notices the posts of yours with a time of 3 AM or so. If you remember, I once even asked when it was, exactly, that you slept.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/30/2004

Thanks, Van, for the suggestion. Yes, I've been at work on this for, oh, maybe six years now. That's not uncommon for a major project, but one of the things that I _need_ to do is to spend _less_ time on this bloody blog and _more_ time on a product for print.

Van L. Hayhow - 9/30/2004

Prof. Luker:
It seems from past posts of yours, that you have been working on this book for some time. When to start writing? Why not now? As you work through your draft, it should be easy to figure out what needs beefing up (if anything) and then decide what additional research needs to be done.

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