Why I Will Never Write a Biography of William Mahone

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I plan to write a biography of William Mahone.  The problem is not a lack of material.  You can find a massive collection of Mahone’s personal papers at Duke University and a smaller collection at the University of Virginia.  In many ways Mahone would make for an ideal study.  He was a successful Confederate general and probably the most important Virginia politician of the nineteenth-century.  Given the evolution of studies of the postwar South and race relations it is clear that a modern study of Mahone is long overdue.  The last biography was published back in the 1930s.  I enjoyed spending time at Duke with the Mahone collection and on an article that was published back in 2005, which is currently chapter 3 in my Crater manuscript.  No, the problem is Mahone’s penmanship.  To put it bluntly, it’s like reading an EKG scan.  Here is a sample of Mahone’s writing and although you may be thinking that it’s not so bad, I assure you that this sample is from one of his better days.

I simply can’t imagine spending the necessary amount of time trying to decipher his writing.  Life is too short.

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9 comments… add one

  • I feel the same way about Gerrit Smith. I wrote my M.A. thesis on the Secret Six, and I would love to write a journal article (at the very least) about Smith, but it would just be too difficult. Maybe I’ll have to scan in one of his letter and put it up on my blog.

  • Adam Arenson Jul 11, 2008

    Yes, but Gerrit Smith is the object example of how a figure can be recovered, since John Stauffer did it in _Black Hearts of Men_. His secret was paleography training, which can help a squiggle become a sentence again.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2008

    Adam, — Thanks for the comment. John Stauffer’s book is well worth reading. I noticed that David Blight is on your dissertation committee. Needless to say, you can probably discern how important his work is for someone who titles his blog, Civil War Memory.

  • Jenny Jul 11, 2008

    At least I’ll be doomed to historical obscurity by my total lack of importance, and not my penmanship (I print). =)

    I’m sure you’ve run into it since you’ve been working at Duke but just in case … Nelson Blake has a 1935 doctoral dissertation which is to my knowledge the only biography of Mahone. Never read it or seen it, just know it exists and I think he was a doctoral candidate at Duke.

    Speaking of Confederate division commanders, Joseph Kershaw is someone who needs a biography as well. He was an excellent division commander and he was very prominent in South Carolina politics during Reconstruction as well as a prominent judge and lawyer. He is someone I always wanted to know more about.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2008

    Hi Jenny, — Nice to hear from you. That is indeed the biography that I referenced in the post. It is well worth reading, though there are only roughly 60 pages devoted to the war years and the rest on his post-war politics/Readjuster years.

    I know someone is finishing up a dissertation on D.H. Hill that probably will be published at some point. I may even read the new biography about Robert Rhodes though I am skeptical for the obvious reasons.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 13, 2008

    Bah, the hand writing is not that bad. Try a few post journals from the Hudsons Bay Company–dark smudges scrawled out by some poor sap in a 20 degree cabin between runs to the outhouse because the dried salmon gives him diarrhea.

  • Gar Lipow Jul 18, 2008

    I simply can’t imagine spending the necessary amount of time trying to decipher his writing.

    Isn’t that what graduate students are for?

  • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2008

    Gar, — Perhaps, but since I am not a college instructor that’s not a realistic option for me.

  • Gar Lipow Jul 18, 2008

    Not an obstacle. Set up an internship with an appropriate university. Be generous with credit. Let the the student post the transcript on his or her site and be the person who transcribed the full works Mahone. You’ll have to do a time estimate. It may need to be a group effort with multiple students if there is a lot to transcribe. You might even be able to get a grant to pay them so they can get money and units. Of course you never said the handwriting was the ONLY reason you’d never write a biography William Mahone….

    All right. I know a certain kind of helpful suggestion can be more irritating than criticism, so I’ll stop now.

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