Caveat Reader (of Secondary Sources)

We’ve probably all done it: you turn in a term paper or a report, and someone (your teacher, your boss) points out that you’ve made a mistake somewhere. So maybe you get a B on the paper instead of an A, or you send out a correction warning anyone who might rely on the misinformation in the report. No biggie, usually—these things happen.

But what if you’re, say, a historian, and you make that mistake in a published work? Maybe even a text that’s going to be relied on by untold numbers of other academics, researchers, and students? That’s a little trickier.

For the most part, of course, secondary historical sources are pretty reliable. Scholarly articles and books published by academic presses not only get edited, they’re vetted through what appears to a pretty rigorous peer review process. Nevertheless, once in a while mistakes get made.

Occasionally there’s a real whopper—like the claim in a Virginia public school textbook a couple of years ago that thousands of black soldiers fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, information apparently gleaned from websites operated by pro-Confederacy fringe groups. More often, though, it’s some seemingly plausible factoid that’s only tangentially related to the main subject of the book—something that falls through the cracks because it’s not that important, at least to the author.

But one person’s factoid can become another person’s prime object of interest—at which point that little mistake can take on larger proportions. And most people who have worked extensively with primary sources have had the unnerving experience of reading something in a secondary source that they know to be inaccurate or untrue. Sometimes you have the even more unnerving experience of seeing the same mistake repeated in several other books that have relied, understandably, on the first one.

Having spent a lot of time digging into the lives of obscure historical figures, I’ve had that experience myself, more than once. Most recently it’s happened in connection with the research I’ve been doing on Eliza Anderson, who founded and edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807 called The Observer.

Anderson (who later became Eliza Anderson Godefroy, after her marriage to a French architect) was a friend of a somewhat less obscure historical figure named Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, a Baltimore heiress who married the youngest brother of Napoleon and became, in her time, a woman of great renown. In the late 19th and early 20th century she was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, biographies of dubious accuracy, and two Hollywood movies that leapt far into the realm of fiction.

There followed a long period where no one paid much attention to her. But in the past two years there’s been a little flurry of interest in “Betsy,” as she’s known familiarly to aficionados, culminating in the publication of the first scholarly work on the subject: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic, by Charlene M. Boyer Lewis.

About three years ago, when I was researching Anderson’s life for a historical novel (which I’m still working on), I came across an article by Professor Boyer Lewis about Betsy Bonaparte and wrote to her to suggest that she, or some other academic, write an article about Anderson, who in some ways seems to me a more interesting figure. I ended up writing that article myself, with Boyer Lewis’s encouragement. And when it was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine—just a short while before Boyer Lewis finished writing her book on Betsy—I sent the article to Boyer Lewis at her request.

Let me first say that Boyer Lewis has done a valuable service by clarifying and setting in context the facts of Betsy Bonaparte’s life, especially given the daunting amount of raw material she had to sift through (there are twenty boxes of Betsy’s correspondence at the Maryland Historical Society alone). Although the book probably won’t win any awards for its prose style, I found much of what she had to say about Betsy and her place in the early republic of great interest, and I’m sure other researchers will as well.

However … I was dismayed to see Eliza Anderson described, on p. 179, as someone who “wrote and edited a Baltimore ladies’ magazine in the early 1800s, perhaps the first woman in the United States to do so” (emphasis added), with my article cited in a footnote. Yes, I was pleased to see in print—for the first time, aside from my article—the acknowledgment that Anderson was the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States (albeit with the qualifier “perhaps”). And it was nice to have my article cited. But The Observer was not “a ladies’ magazine.”

This is actually a significant point, and it’s one I took great pains to emphasize in my article. Virtually all the female editors of the 19th century (all of whom came after Anderson) were editors of ladies’ magazines, sometimes even styling themselves “editresses.” Yes, they were undertaking a job hitherto performed by men. But by speaking only to other women about matters of ostensible interest only to women, they were carving out a safe harbor for themselves.

Anderson, on the other hand, was editing a general interest magazine—a “literary miscellany,” in the parlance of the day. She and her contributors addressed themselves to anything and everything, including traditionally “male” subjects like history, philosophy, and science. Anderson might have had an easier time of it had she edited a ladies’ magazine. She came in for a fair amount of abuse, some of which almost certainly had to do with the fact that she was a woman presuming to tell men, among others, what they should think and how they should act. It was a bold thing to do at the time, and describing her as the editor of a ladies’ magazine really isn’t giving her fair credit.

That wasn’t the only mistake I found in the book. At another point, Boyer Lewis refers to The Observer as “a gentleman’s magazine,” apparently not realizing it’s the same publication she describes elsewhere as “a ladies’ magazine.” And she quotes a letter written by Anderson to Betsy Bonaparte without appearing to realize it was written by Anderson, even though the footnote identifies her as the author. The quotation praises the United States in extravagant terms (“We have no scandal … nor ill nature, no envy hatred or malice”)—terms that are, to anyone who knows anything about Anderson, clearly dripping with sarcasm. Further down on the same page, Boyer Lewis includes a second quotation, from another letter Anderson wrote, denouncing “Love of Country” as nothing more than “a fashionable cant.” Nevertheless, Boyer Lewis takes the first quotation as though it were meant seriously and attributes it to a nameless “woman on the periphery” who valued America’s “republican simplicity” over Europe’s “aristocratic luxury.”

So, what to do when one comes across what one knows is a mistake in a published text? Well, unless the text is a “wiki”—a format that has yet to be embraced by academic presses, probably with good reason—there are basically only two possibilities. You can write your own book and correct the record—as, ironically, Boyer Lewis herself has done vis-à-vis Betsy Bonaparte, a figure with whom many other writers have had their way. (In a footnote, Boyer Lewis cites one of the more egregious examples: a historian who described her as a “prostitute,” when in fact she was the daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest men.)

You can also write to the author and diplomatically point out the mistake. Not that they’ll recall the book, of course, but you’d think they might want to know. I brought the “ladies’ magazine” error to Boyer Lewis’s attention over a month ago and have yet to receive a reply.

On the other hand, consider this: A couple of years ago, I picked up the then newly published Empire of Liberty, a magisterial and altogether wonderful survey of American history between 1789 and 1815 by the dean of American historians of the era, Gordon Wood. I was at first delighted, and then a little disappointed, to find a couple of pages discussing Eliza Anderson. Wood described Anderson as “a female editor,” but didn’t pause to consider how unusual it was for an editor at the time to be female—let alone that she might have been the first female magazine editor in the country. So I wrote to him and enclosed a copy of my article. Within days, I got the following reply via email:

“Thanks for sending me the journal with your splendid article. I wish I had had your article when I wrote the book. You’re quite right about the novelty of a female editor and I should have made more of it.”

It doesn’t quite correct the record. But at least it acknowledges, quite graciously, that the record should be corrected.

A quick addendum: This morning (October 3), I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition detailing the struggle of a historian to correct what he believes is a mistake in virtually all secondary accounts of the 1886 Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, based on his reading of primary sources (the trial transcripts). Apparently Wikipedia has a policy that requires a secondary source for an assertion, and wouldn’t accept his attempt to change their entry on the Haymarket riot based on a primary source.


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