Posts Tagged McFeely
William McFeely’s Douglass biography is “psychological speculation.” Straight garbage and problematic.
There is a small collective of Hall of Fame of Douglassonian biographers — Holland, Gregory, Quarles, Foner, Blassingame and Preston.
Absent from this list is the delusional William McFeely and his disturbing 1991 biography, Frederick Douglass.
As attention in Douglass swells during the Bicentennial month of his birth the record must be set straight: William McFeely’s biography of Douglass is straight garbage.
Look no further than the New York Times review from February 1991:
More than their predecessors, modern American biographers tend to probe the personal lives of their subjects by deeper research into their backgrounds, often retracing their footsteps and bringing new information to the surface. This is what Mr. McFeely does so well here as he tracks Douglass all over the country and abroad. The author, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, followed a similar course in his notable biography of Ulysses S. Grant. While offering a good deal of psychological speculation about Douglass, his interpretations seem rooted in solid evidence.
Inferences and speculations fill nearly every page, paragraph and sentence in the book.
A recipient of the Pulitzer-Prize for his 1982 biography, Grant: A Biography, and author of one of the few works on Oliver Otis Howard, an outgrowth of his dissertation, McFeely seems, at times, disinterested in his subject and at times takes a tone of disdain. Even when defending ambiguous conventional criticism of Douglass, such as Douglass distanced himself from his racial identity at turns during his lifetime, McFeely asserts a perceived authority that comes from cliched generalities not facts.
In late 2011 when I embarked on the research process for Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. McFeely’s work was the first I picked up. I subsequently read Quarles, whose work I was familiar with from high school self-study. It was a couple months later I found, with the help of bookseller buddies, Philip Foner’s biography.
In comparison to the full biographical works of Quarles and Foner, McFeely’s work is shoddy scholarship, to be polite about it.
Focusing on Douglass’ Washington years from 1870 until his death I closely read McFeely’s speculative psychology in chapters “Uniontown,” “Cedar Hill” and others. What little actual factual information about Douglass and local Washington McFeely attempts to advance I quickly broke down, such as McFeely’s claim the New Era was printed across the old Eastern Branch Bridge, in what today is Ward 8.
I remember expressing frustration to a close friend about how a “professional historian” could get such a basic fact horribly wrong. I have since grown as a street corner historian to know many “professional historians” are not thorough-headed and more inventive than attentive.
However, overall McFeely wastes many a words on idle speculation. For example, on the first page McFeely uses not a Douglass letter, writing or memory but his own prose to describe the flora and fauna of the Tuckahoe.
“Rabbits and deer invaded the fields from the woods, and turtles sunned on logs in the Tuckahoe, into which the brook fed. The birds, in rich confusion, made the sounds of morning; one of the great sights came at migrating time, when ducks in flocks settled on the marsh-bounded water below the mill dam. This was Frederick’s outdoors home; when he went indoors, his shelter was a cabin built with timbers cut from the woods, sheathed with the slabs of bark left when they were squared, and caulked and floored with clay from the brook.”
Introduced by our good friend and Douglassonian Frank Faragasso, McFeely devotes half of his time to discussing the current public policy issue du jour. While discussion of public policy is at times interesting and provocative, you are there to talk about Douglass, not some other stuff.
McFeely would later author a book detailing his involvement with death penalty reform efforts. Born in 1930, McFeely would now be 88 years old or thereabout.
We won’t wish him ill but his book is sickening. Its few achievements are overwhelmed by its many shortcomings and speculations.
[As a note, textual analysis and textual comparison is not Douglassoniana scholarship I consider serious. This book is scholarship. This book is not. And along with David Blight, McFeely and Ira Berlin, FD Studies have been hijacked for the last 30 years by White Man Lies.]
REVIEWS of McFeely’s book:
Boston Globe (Nell Irvin Planter)
Case for Speculations: David Blight is an intellectual disgrace to Douglassonian Biographers Frederic May Holland, James Monroe Gregory, Benjamin Quarles, Philip Foner, John Blassingame and Dickson J. Preston (Part 2)
There is a Hall of Fame of Douglassonian Biographers.
In order of appearance: Frederic May Holland, James Monroe Gregory, Benjamin Quarles, Philip Foner, John Blassingame and Dickson J. Preston.
(ED Note: Leigh Fought is not eligible as her years as a Douglassonian are still active. The Kendricks would be inducted as a father-son duo of Douglassonians.)
Absent from this short list is David Blight of Yale University, one of the most overrated Civil War historians of the last generation.
Douglassonians are thorough-headed scholars of FD’s network as a connecting line throughout his entire life, from connections running the neighborhood streets of Fells Point to local petitioners who approached him while he walked the muddy streets of Old Anacostia, a locally respected and internationally known statesman for the friendless.
Blight is not a Douglassonian. Blight’s presentations on Douglass are restrictive and dated, just as is his scholarship.
Blight’s book published nearly thirty years ago in 1989 was an outgrowth of his 1985 dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the same institution attended by another over-rated old American white man and alleged “Douglass Scholar.” The book is by Blight’s own admission “juvenile writing.” We agree.
Blight covers Douglass in the years leading to the Civil War and during the Civil War. It’s a book every Douglass scholar should have but not one that is of particular importance. It’s maybe a top 50 Douglass book, not better than that. There are around 100 real books about Douglass so Blight’s work by honest evaluation is a book in the middle, not bad, not particularly good. In reading of Blight’s book in preparation for writing my own book he gets a number of dates and facts related to the Douglass Reconstruction years in Washington City wrong.
David Blight, a 68-year old former high school history teacher from Flint, Michigan, has comfortably traveled the country and world for years without advancing any unique understanding or interpretation of Douglass beyond the metaphorical.
He views Douglass as a mythical metaphor. He lauds Harvard professor John Stauffer, who has taken credit for research done by Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier and did some other jankey stuff with his inaccurately sub-titled co-authored book.
Douglass is a neighborhood guy. This stable of current old American white men who are somehow lauded and labeled “Douglass experts” — Blight, Ira Berlin and John Stauffer [the youngest being born in 1965] — will never understand Douglass as Freddy Fred. Never. Never ever. All Douglass is to them is a method for them to reign unchallenged within their Ivory Towers of largely speculative scholarship.
Douglass is a benevolent spirit watching over all the intellectual curious children of the 1-6 and lost souls seeking shelter from the sub-zero temperatures in the abandominiums of Old Anacostia.
Douglass is not a past and distant myth and a convenient metaphor.
Real live. He’s got the biggest house in the ‘hood.
Case for Speculations (1): Imitating Douglass’ voice, cracked, high-pitched and subservient
This is not history. It is bizarre pseudo-speculation and this old white man’s effort to imitate how he thinks Frederick Douglass would conduct himself in a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. Bizarre on many levels.
A true historian, let alone a Douglassonian, would directly quote from source material. Blight does not. He offers an imitation of Douglass.
See, young scholar-soldiers, I came up 901 G. Where you might catch Anthony Pitch giving a presentation without a single inference, note of speculation, whiff of guesswork or hint of conjecture.
This non-historical pseudo-genuflecting drivel by Blight and other alleged “Douglass experts” is nothing any respectable W Street Douglassonian and self-respecting historian can and will ever respect.
Case for Speculations (2): “You can milk it for pages.“
Blight demonstrates his appalling laziness as a speculative historian by professing that to a narrative-based biographer such as himself he jumps at the occasion to take any short cut he can find.
When looking through vertical files of old newspaper clippings that chronicle Douglass’ life and times, in real time, Blight admits when he finds a clipping he views the discovery as an opportunity to “milk it for pages.”
In his presentation to Harvard Law School he says this with exaggeration, emphasizing the point with a small rattle of his off-dominant lecture hand.
On W Street we don’t milk. We research. We respect the game. Otherwise they take you out.
I’m on mission to agitate, agitate, agitate and take out all of these alleged Douglass experts who are a disgrace to the limited and sacred Hall of Fame of Douglassonian Biographers.
Don’t tell me Blight is a Douglass expert because he is not. He is a speculative, mediocre Civil War historian.
On Thursday January 13, 1870 The New Era made its appearance in Washington, DC with the backing of Frederick Douglass, a newspaperman lest we forget.
The paper’s name was derived from the abolitionist newspaper The National Era which was published weekly in Washington from 1847 to 1860 under the editorship of Gamaliel Bailey and John Greenleaf Whittier. From 1851 to 1852 it published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form. During the Pearl Affair, the largest planned escape of slaves in American history, in 1848 a mob almost destroyed their offices.
Plans to start up a “colored paper” in Washington, DC were in the works in the immediate years after the Civil War with folks like George T. Downing urging Frederick Douglass to take a leading role. Douglass, after running three previous papers, has been described as the reluctant editor. This is true.
A couple days after The New Era paper appeared on the city’s streets, the Baltimore Sun‘s “Washington Letter” ran a paragraph acknowledging the launch of the “colored people’s paper.”
“The New Era made its appearance this morning. As heretofore state, it is to be the organ of the colored people of the country. The editor is Rev. Sella Martin; corresponding editor Frederick Douglass. The first issue contains a card from Douglas, stating that pressure of his business prevented him from sending an editorial this week. Three white and one colored printer perform the work of composition.” [The colored printer being Fred, Jr.]
By the end of the year the paper had problems. Promises were made to Frederick Douglass that were apparently not kept and Douglass ended up going all in, anteing up his hard-earned dollars to ensure the paper’s survival.
In February 1871 the District of Columbia Organic Act become law, consolidating the governments of the city, Georgetown, and Washington County. As a Republican man in what was then a Republican city, Douglass was considered a leading candidate for the position of non-voting Delegate. Douglass wasn’t sitting on his hands.
Before moving to Washington Douglass was widely known on both sides of the Atlantic for his outspokenness on the page and lecture stage. However influential in political and literacy circles, not everyone agreed with Douglass’ advocacy and the positions his paper, The New Era / New National Era took in demanding equal rights under the law for freedmen and women. Douglass, a man who came up in the streets of 1830s Jacksonian Baltimore but came of age in Rochester, New York, would often remind folks, “Washington was an old slave city.”
That said, I find Douglass involvement with the New Era/New National Era/New National Era-Citizen another overlooked dynamic of his time in Washington, DC. Foner, Quarles, and Deidrich give it a fair shake. McFeely’s gross negligence and slothful treatment of the paper is downright blasphemous. (About a decade ago there was a panel at the DC Historical Studies Conference on Douglass and his DC paper but at the time I was still a teenager on my own come up so I missed it. I have been unsuccessful in contacting one of the panel’s participants to find out what was said and presented.)
In all the treatments of Douglass and his DC paper in books, academic journals, and other published material looking backwards I’ve never come across what looks to be an arson attempt on the paper’s offices.
In late May 1871 this item shows up in our trusted Baltimore Sun “Washington Letter” column…
“About noon to-day the printers in the office of the New Era newspaper, on Eleventh street, near Pennsylvania avenue, saw smoke coming up through the floor from the pawnbrokership of Issac and Lehrman Abrahams, on the floor below. The police were at one notified, and broke open the doors, when the discovered a large pile of rags and other light material piled up on the floor and burning. The material has been previously saturated with kerosene. The fire was extinguished, and as the two Abrahams were seen to leave the shop a few minutes previously, they were at once arrested on the charge of arson.”
Whew. OK. What does this say? Were the Abrahams trying to arson their own business to collect insurance, trying to burn down the offices of the New Era, or just crazy pyromaniacs?
A quick review of my own files of the the May 25th, June 1, and June 8th editions of the New Era didn’t reveal any mention of this failed arson attempt. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there and I overlooked it. I will do another review soon and will see what I can find in the Evening Star from May 1871 down at the Washingtoniana Division.
All in all, this might be not be nefarious but as they say where there’s smoke there’s fire.
To be continued…
A couple days ago I posted a clipping from the Baltimore Sun indicating Anna Murray Douglass was buried in Graceland Cemetery within days of her death on August 4, 1882. I then called the clerk of Mount Hope Cemetery who told me their records indicate Anna Murray Douglass was buried there in 1882, but didn’t have the exact date of her internment. Fair enough.
A friend and a reader have since sent an article I’d overlooked from February 22, 1895 revealing that upon Frederick’s death in Washington in February 1895, his children intended to “disinter” Anna, who was still buried in DC, now at Glenwood Cemetery (as Graceland Cemetery closed in July 1894), and move her to Rochester to rest alongside Frederick, and their youngest daughter, Annie.
I called over to Glenwood Cemetery on Lincoln Road NE and spoke with Walter, the superintendent. I explained all the background and said I was trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. Ever gracious Walter gave a thorough once-over through the card files and internment book from 1894 until 1896. This would have covered Anna’s possible move from Graceland and/or her disinterment, right Well, Walter didn’t see anything but extended the invitation to come over and check the books out in person, if I’d like.
What I find interesting is, that if Anna Murray Douglass was moved from Graceland to Glenwood, she was moved to what Richardson calls one of the city’s “big five” white cemeteries of the last nineteenth/early 20th century. Those five being, Oak Hill, Rock Creek, Congressional, Glenwood, and Mount Olivet, which was a biracial burial ground. The “big five” of Washington’s black cemeteries of this time, Richardson writes, were Harmony, Payne’s (east of the river), Mount Olivet, Mount Zion, and Mount Pleasant.
Now, back to Mount Hope. The New York Times clipping must be read with a certain level of critical perspicacity. At the time of Frederick’s death in 1895, Rosetta, his oldest daughter, was alive, but his youngest daughter Annie, had been dead for thirty-five years. So, only one of Douglass’ daughters was buried in Rochester, not two.
Calling Mount Hope I spoke with Lydia Sanchez, a clerk at Mount Hope Cemetery which is run by the city of Rochester. I explained Lydia my quandary. Once again, Lydia confirmed that according to Mount Hope’s records Anna Murray Douglass was buried in 1882. It wasn’t until 1888 that datebooks of burials were kept.
With this info, is it correct to say that if Anna Murray Douglass was buried in Mount Hope in late February or early March 1895 alongside her husband of 44 years there would be an exact date. I have a whole collection of newspaper accounts of Douglass’s funeral service in DC and Rochester and his subsequent burial in Rochester that I can examine as well as letters. This is not something I had expected to find, but it’s been found nonetheless.
Foner, Quarles, and McFeely don’t really get into detail about Anna’s death and burial. Deadrich in Love Across Color Lines does go there, stating that Anna was brought to Rochester and buried there right after her death. Her citation does nothing to prove her claim. While Douglass’ other biographers didn’t step up to bat on this one, Diedrich did. But she struck out.
My main man, Frederic May Holland, and his blasphemously ignored work 19th century work on Douglass, may come the closest to to giving some valuable clues to solving his mystery.
Will look into this further and get up another post. To be continued….
Don’t believe everything you read; the offices of “The New Era” were not in Uniontown, McFeely error “blasphemous”
I can say with metaphysical certitude that Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (for his 1982 work on U.S. Grant) William McFeely is well off-target when he writes in his 1991 book, Frederick Douglass, that “when the New Era, of which [Douglass] was a sponsor, began publication in January 1870, its offices were in Uniontown, a part of the District of Columbia across the Anacostia River; the number of black citizens in Washington was growing, and a good many of them were building houses there.” [Pg. 271, 4th paragraph, 1995 edition]
McFeely got the first part wrong, the second part right (which we will address in future posts). I have found no evidence to support McFeely’s claim that The New Era was published in Uniontown. All sources I’ve discovered contradict McFeely, whose careless reference is not cited.
Arguably the “official” or definitive source on where the offices of The New Era were when it began publication is the 1870 Boyd’s City Directory (the 19th century version of the 20th century Yellow Pages). The New Era, a weekly paper, is listed as being published at “406 11th st.” While there is no quadrant identifier – nw, sw, se, or ne – at this time, in Uniontown the streets did not have alpha-numeric names. Uniontown streets had Presidential-themed names, established in 1854 when the Union Land Association began sales of the suburb’s first lots. Furthermore, if The New Era was, indeed, printed in Uniontown the city directory would have noted that clearly.
All five years The New Era, which would change its name slightly in ensuing years, is listed in the City Directory with its offices noted on the 400 block of 11th Street. This location put the paper “[e]dited by colored men” in approximate proximity to “Newspaper Row” which is immortalized in a January 1874 Harper’s article, “Washington News,” by Benjamin Perley Poore.
While McFeely is an industry lauded historian, Leigh Fought (working on a book about Douglass) has also found room to quibble with McFeely over a minor, yet rather consequential detail in his book about the background of Helen Pitts, Douglass’ second wife.
The New Era is only mentioned four times in McFeely’s work of more than 385 pages. In those four references, one of which we have already noted, McFeely never offers to say when, why, or how this upstart paper would have moved its offices crosstown from Uniontown, the rural southside of the city, to the hub of journalistic activity, right off of Pennsylvania Avenue, “America’s Main Street.”
I find this error to not be minor; it is major.
It is egregious, sloppy, and as a journalist with respect for and a shared fraternity with the “black press” we find this error blasphemous to the legacy of Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC. A legacy which is yet understood, and yet appreciated. We owe ourselves, our city, and the memory of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th century the honor to do his memory justice.
Both Benjamin Quarles and Philip Foner’s works on Douglass treat “The New Era” critically, respectfully, and accurately based on scholarship. McFeely’s work can make no such claims.
Frederick Douglass accepts Howard University Board of Trustees appointment with conditions, June 27, 1871
With the exception of a handful of books on the history of Howard University, Frederick Douglass’ contributions to the early growth of “The Mecca” have been ignored and are unknown. Douglass never mentions Howard University in his 1881 biography, nor his 1892 update. Quarles, Foner, and McFeely provide few-to-no insights. Rayford Logan’s Howard University: The First Hundred Years 1867-1967, I’ve found, is the most comprehensive work to touch on Douglass and Howard, especially Douglass’ 1875 nomination to serve as President of Howard University.
Scrolling through the HU Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center last week I hope to begin the process of shedding light on the important, yet overlooked, assistance Douglass gave to the evolution and development of the school on the hilltop above Boundary Street.
On June 27th, 1871, at the 79th meeting of HU’s Board of Trustees, a letter was received from Douglass. At the previous board meeting on June 13th, Douglass was elected, along with three others, as a new member of the Board of Trustees.
“A communication was received from Hon. Frederick Douglass accepting the appointment of Trustee with conditions. On motion the Secretary was directed to reply that the Board desire he should remain a Trustee although he may not be able to attend all the meetings.”
Around the same time, June 1871, Douglass steps down from his position as a member of the city’s Legislative Council.