Carl Sandburg’s Hair, Or Why I Love Research

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or a camera (digital photography being the current rage among researchers and, frankly, the best way to copy fragile historical documents).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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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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