Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 44 (Zero-hour edition)

Day 1 of 10.

This is where the rubber hits the road, folks: those boxes in front of the LCD screen contain original materials from the 1830s, '40s, and '50s. I'm about to put my hands on the actual pages that my guy used to notate music in the decades before the Civil War.

I'm back in the archive I first visited in July, to spend 10 days working through original materials associated with my antebellum painter of black musicians, an (I'm arguing) crucial-yet-neglected informant on the performance practice and black-white musical collaboration that yielded minstrelsy, the first great syncretic American popular music style. I am suggesting that this man, who was born on Long Island but spent his adolescence and early manhood as a sign-painter's apprentice in NYC on the Lower East Side in the period (1820s and early '30s) when blackface in the contorted bodies of GW Dixon and TD Rice was first bubbling up from under--was first expressing the rebellious working-class uprising that Andy Jackson had ridden to the presidency but which the old power elites, terrified, were working to suppress with new draft laws and the creation of municipal police to control public space--this man who was there at the time, a member of the apprentice working-class but who, like George Dixon and Tom Rice (and later Dan Emmett and Joe Sweeney), was going to use art to claw his way upward into the middle class, this man, who played fiddle and flute himself, whose brother was a dancing master, who painted black banjo- and fiddle- and bones-players...

this man...

is a key to understanding where American popular music came from.

Had a bit of a shock this morning: finally got my hands on (through the kind offices of the Art curator, a wonderful person and colleague) a 2004 dissertation, which on very preliminary first pass looks like an excellent piece of work, but presented a bit of a shock, as its first section addresses very much the claims I want to make about the ways my painter's images reflect valuable information about race in America in the antebellum period. He draws on some of the same scholarship and analysis (about "race", and "identity", and "community", and "performance") that I would draw upon.

This is always a bit of a shock when you're working in an original area of research. If you have chosen a topic for more "pure" than "pragmatic" motives (that is, because you are fascinated by the topic than because your dissertation advisor has assured you the topic is so hopelessly obscure that you can safely corner the intellectual market for it), then you typically begin simply with curiosity: you want to know more about a historical topic, question, or connection and so you try to find things to read about it. Only gradually, as you cull through the existing scholarly literature, you begin to notice that there are gaps in that literature. Something (a question, insight, problem, or connection) that seems utterly obvious to you does not seem to have been addressed in the literature, and the more you delve in the literature, the more you discover that it just ain't there--that what strikes you as a glaringly obvious query or insight does not seem to have been caught by anyone else.

This is simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating: you think "Holy crap, nobody has worked on this, and it's so obvious, that I might have something original to add here" (as my revered dissertation advisor said, "At some level, you should never write an article or a dissertation unless you are convinced it can change the world"--if for no other reason than that it is so fucking hard to write an article or dissertation that, if you aren't feeling a little messianic about it, you'll never get it done), and at the same time, you think "Holy crap, I have to write this fucking thing!" No matter how much hubris we academics are (justly) accused of harboring, if, when you discover a gap like this in the existing literature, you aren't a little scared, you're not a real scholar.

So you dig and dig and dig, read and read and read, write and write and write, grappling with capturing and translating to cogent prose the abstraction of your ideas which is (really very hard) work--and I say this as someone who was a short-order cook, a janitor, a carpenter, and an oil-field mechanic--and grinding away through the existing literature, simultaneously more and more exhilarated as you find that the gap really is there, scared because the job seems bigger and bigger as a result, and fearful that--at the eleventh hour, after you've put in months of research trying to confirm the gap--you'll find at the last minute the brilliant book, article, or dissertation that does everything you were going to do, and does it FIRST and/or BETTER.

And all those months of reading, thinking, searching, writing are simultaneously confirmed to have been well-founded ("the question really was there") and now superfluous ("the bastard got to it before me!!!"). It's an endemic risk in trying to do good scholarly historical work that makes an original and valid contribution--you have an intellectual responsibility to be on the lookout for prior good work which makes your own superfluous.

I think I may have dodged this particular bullet. The dissertation is brilliant, and I certainly want to meet the guy, try out my take on the material in the thrust-and-parry of scholarly conversation, and see what he can provide by way of critical feedback--and I'll certainly have to cite the (really excellent) work he's done that will provide a late-breaking and late-discovered component of my book's foundation.

But (thank God) I'm doing something slightly different, slightly more focused, damned sure more musicological than art-historical in methods and perspectives, so I think I'm OK. But I'm damned sure glad I found this dissertation now, rather than 6 weeks before my book went to press.

This is Day 1. Nine more to go.

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