Carl Sandburg’s Hair, Or Why I Love Research

January 17, 2011


Photograph of stacks of papers in one of my bookshelves

A small fragment of my Beasts research

I like to think of myself as the Indiana Jones of libraries and archives. (“Microfilm, why did it have to be microfilm.”) I don’t rely on researchers, because I find the hunt for information—fresh information—to be one of the most satisfying phases of writing books, each day a kind of mystery. Why on earth would I pay someone else to have all the fun? I get to fly to some remote locale, walk new and interesting streets, hang out in bars, and handle materials that may not have been touched for a century or more. Nothing brings the past alive quite as vividly as an artifact that’s been buried in a box for decades, maybe centuries. Call me boring, and many do, but entering a new archive is, to me, like stepping into the tomb of King Tutankhamun, only with less risk of evoking a life-long curse.

For my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, I spent a good deal of time in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., an amazing place full of secrets yet to be plumbed. It is one of the great treasures of the world, though housed not in the glorious main Thomas Jefferson Building, where frankly it ought to reside, but across the street in a modern coffin, the James Madison Memorial Building, six stories of shiny waxed floors and an interior so bleached of landmarks that the various sets of elevators and corridors have to be color coded, lest one wander for hours hunting for the men’s room.

You can’t bring anything into the manuscript reading room other than a handful of pre-approved notes, a laptop, or a camera (digital photography being the current rage among researchers and, frankly, the best way to copy fragile historical documents). The staff do allow you to remain clothed, but you can’t bring in a notebook, pen or pencil, and you would be executed on the spot if you happened to brandish a Sharpie permanent marker.

Image of the Madison building--a rather cold modern edifice

The James Madison building

The library supplies paper and pencils and, thankfully, a couple of electric sharpeners. One of the first things you notice is that there are no trash cans in the reading room, for obvious reasons. As archive rules go, these are neither the strictest nor the strangest I’ve encountered. For my research on Thunderstruck I visited the New Bodleian library at Oxford, which asks all new researchers to sign a declaration in which they pledge not to bring incendiary materials into the library, a shame, because I always travel with a blow torch.

The manuscript division holds the papers of half a dozen characters who appear in Beasts, including my two main protagonists, William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha. In their papers I found all manner of compelling materials. Invitations to parties at the home of Hermann Göring. Calling cards with cryptic invitations. Martha’s baby book, in which her proud parents reveal that her first word was “Daddy,” and that as a toddler she swallowed a penny, with no ill effect. Postcards from one of Martha’s friends, who would later be hunted down by the Gestapo and guillotined. It was in Martha’s papers as well that I found, much to my delight, two locks of hair from one of her many lovers, Carl Sandburg, each tied with black coat-button thread and resembling the business end of a miniature witch’s broom.

An image of two locks of Carl Sandburg's hair

Carl Sandburg's hair

The map room in the same building is also quite amazing. Here too there really ought to be some massive ornate archway signalling the wondrous materials these cartographic archives contain. Happily there is at least a very large translucent globe.

Image of a huge, translucent, luminous blue globe

Entrance to the map room at the Library of Congress

The gracious curators brought me map after map of 1930s Berlin, some so large they would cover most of a dining room table, each ablaze with color to indicate parks, buildings, tramways, the River Spree, and streets you won’t find on a modern map—such as the benighted Prinz-Albrecht-strasse (Prince Albert Street), once home to the Gestapo and, later, to a stretch of the Berlin Wall. It is artifacts like these—real things from a real past—that cause the world of back then to reanimate itself in my mind, with almost tactile clarity. These things are like heroin, utterly and thoroughly addictive.

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January 1, 2011

I am one of the last writers in America to establish a web presence. I’ve resisted for a variety of reasons. Mainly, I tend to be perverse. As my late mother once told my wife, “If you ever want him to do something, first tell him not to do it.” All my career I have prospered by zigging while everyone else was zagging. I fear fads, crazes, bubbles. I never go to the beach on Memorial Day. I never once in my life smoked pot, not because I was philosophically or morally opposed to it, but because everyone else did it. Every writer I know set up a website, and made sure to tell me I ought to do likewise. Needless to say, I did not.

Also, I have little tolerance for routine. I don’t balance my checkbook. I don’t mow my lawn. I have driven my current street vehicle through a car wash exactly once, though happily my wife has done so numerous times. (I take much better care of “Mrs. Peel,” my 1967 Austin-Healey BJ8—blue with ivory side panels, six in-line cylinders, two carbs—but then, washing its curves and polishing its chrome is anything but drudgery.) I’ve been afraid that if I built a website I would, inevitably, fail to keep it updated and fresh. I have noticed that many writers’ websites have gathered a good deal of digital dust, with blogs at ever-increasing intervals and references to speaking engagements, events, and other achievements that took place months or even years earlier. My perversity comes into play here as well. Knowing that I have to keep my website fresh makes it all the harder for me to imagine actually do so. It is a deep personal flaw, and a cross that my wife and daughters have, for the most part, borne with humor and grace.

What changed my attitude was the growing sense that readers, book-club presenters, speakers’ bureaus and others who have wanted to reach me, were starting to get cranky about the fact that they could not readily do so. I noticed as well that my hosts for speaking engagements found themselves forced to scour the web for material to include when introducing me to their audiences, with the result that I have heard myself described in some very odd ways, often with outdated and distorted information. One host decided I was a professor at the University of Kansas. My fault, I admit. A website, I now acknowledge, would have resolved all this confusion in a heartbeat.

Finally, I came to realize that quite a few readers were simply unaware that I had written anything other than The Devil in the White City. I have. I swear I have. And you’ll like those books just as much. But you don’t have to read them. Suffice it to say I’ll be happy if you simply know that there are a number of books out there all written by the same author, that author being me.

So, I give you now my website. My goal will be to have some fun in these pages, maybe share some writing gossip, pass along some writing tips and revelations, mention a few good books, restaurants, hotels, wines—that kind of thing. Those of you who wish can send along questions about writing or my books. At intervals I’ll choose one or two and address them directly on the site.

I had hoped to provide space to give our ten-year-old Golden Retriever, Molly, a recurring web presence as well, but I am deeply sorry to report that on Oct. 4, 2010, after months of enduring liver cancer, she left us for wherever it is that kind and sweet dogs go. It was a sad but peaceful and loving moment, orchestrated with great care by our veterinarian. We should all have the opportunity to exit with such grace. There is a page within this website devoted entirely to her, since she was such a huge part of my family and indeed of my writing life. We miss her every day.

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