There’s an error in my 2010 book Declaration. A howler. I learned of it only because of a recent Amazon review pointing it out. Yet it’s not an easy error to make, as the reviewer notes, and as I now see all too clearly, so I’m amazed not only that I harbored such a fundamental misconception but also that nobody has called me on it before.
While I do not, for oddball reasons of my own, submit my work for scholarly review before publication, many of the people who have read the book are highly knowledgeable — far more than I — in the area where I’ve made my mistake. And since a lot of time has gone by since publication, I had become pretty confident that the book went to press with only one error. (I’ll list that error below, since this is an “Errata” column; it got corrected for the paperback. This one didn’t. I’ll have to live with it.)
I’ve always thought — by which I mean “I’ve always for some reason believed, so never even bothered to think about” — that a brother of Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed at Bunker Hill, was James Warren, to whom some leadership of revolutionary Boston and Massachusetts did indeed lapse after the death of the doctor. In Declaration, I look at correspondence between John Adams and James Warren during the climactic days of 1776, and I refer more than once to James Warren as the late Joseph Warren’s brother.
Dr. Warren did have brothers, but if James Warren was related to that batch of Warrens, the connection would have been only very distant. And it would take but a second or two to find that out.
Readers not immersed in the history of 1770’s America might mistake this error for a dumb but fairly minor miss. But I am supposed to be immersed. So to anyone who knows anything about revolutionary-era Boston, it’s the kind of thing that suggests the author doesn’t know anything, since nobody really into the history of the period, as I like to think I am, would be likely to make that mistake. It’s a kind of 101-level error. It tends to undermine confidence in the author’s seriousness as a whole.
My Warren misconception is not, in other words, a slip. Slips can of course be revealing, but this is a gaping hole in underlying knowledge, and like all such errors, it’s super-revealing.
Like everyone else, I’ve made slips. In one essay, I referred to the radical American labor organization whose initials were I.W.W. (also known as the Wobblies) as “International Workers of the World”; they were Industrial Workers of the World. A reader pointed out the error and said it undermined my whole argument. But I knew what I.W.W. really stands for. I was hasty in writing, and both I and my copyeditor should have carefully fact-checked and corrected all such things.
Haste is not good, partly because it leads to slips, but a slip doesn’t in itself reveal a superficial attitude toward the material, or, in my case, to certain portions of it.
Nor can this Warren error be classed among mistakes you’ve been corrected on repeatedly but can’t help making over and over again. In The Whiskey Rebellion I put the town of Newburyport in New Hampshire. It’s in Massachusetts, on the coast, very near the NH border. I’ve been there, more than once; I always call it “Newburyport, New Hampshire,” and someone always says “It’s Mass,” and I always say, “Oh, yeah.” That (along with calling a source named Swauger “Swanger”) is the only error I know about in The Whiskey Rebellion — and some people have really tried to poke holes in that book — and while it’s a ditzy slip, and while I wish that I (and, again, copyediting) had caught it, it reflects only some weird block I happen to have, which shouldn’t have been allowed to affect my book. (It and the “Swanger” error got corrected for the Whiskey Rebellion paperback).
Other gaffes are worse. On Twitter not long ago I was corrected publicly for calling the scholar George Rudé French: he’s English. I’ve read and cited Rudé, but thanks to that accent mark, I must have assumed I was reading a translation — despite the fact that I’ve never had to cite a translator? How does that work? The error in Declaration that I mentioned above, which I caught myself, and corrected for the paperback, mislocated the Pennsylvania state constitutional convention of 1776: I put it in Carpenter’s Hall, but that was only the delegating convention; far more dramatically, the big one was held in the State House, right across the corridor from the Congress. I did myself out of a good scene there.
I’ve put the famous folk collector John Lomax in a big black Cadillac, and now I can’t get him out of it; in real life, he had a Model T Ford, and once my mistake was pointed out, I realized I’d known that, too, with some other part of my brain. How does the Cadillac get into the story?
The strange fact is, I still think Lomax drove a Caddy. (And I still think Newburyport is in New Hampshire.)
I don’t still think James and Joseph Warren were brothers. I’d just for some reason taken it that they were brothers. Much of what Declaration tries to do is give a detailed and intimate sense of what was happening “on the ground” in 1776. That takes immersion. But yes, revolutionary-Boston mavens, it’s true: This error means I’ve taken Mercy Warren for Dr. Warren’s sister-in-law, for example, and et cetera. That’s not anywhere near immersion.
How can this be: deep dive in one place, 101-level gaffe somewhere else? (I don’t mean to imply that there are others like it in the book, I’m sure there aren’t, but the point is that this one should make readers doubt that.) I’ve studied the Massachusetts men Samuel and John Adams closely, for example, pretty much the complete primary and secondary record up to 1777, with less complete yet nevertheless serious work on periods thereafter. Their relationship became of immense interest to me, and I think Declaration develops what was going on between them, and within John, at a degree of intimacy that I haven’t seen in other books. Indeed, I think there’s a pretty fresh picture of John Adams in Declaration!
In a related context, I’ve also read in really abstruse detail about theories of day-to-day crowd action in 1760’s and ’70’s Boston. People may disagree with my conclusions, but I don’t think I’m capable of making any doofus howlers in that area of my work.
But when it comes to the lives of many of the big-time leaders in Boston at that time, I don’t, in fact, know what was happening on the ground. That’s what’s just been painfully brought home to me, although in another sense, it’s merely been confirmed. I made of all Warrens the merest window dressing. Window dressing is a necessary part of any book. But the necessary thinning should come by choice, of course, not by thinness of knowledge itself.
A historical form of the imitative fallacy: not merely to argue against all-importance for the various Warrens and their ilk but also to remain (partly!) ignorant of them? For it’s no secret, even from me, that I’ve assertively promoted the situation in 1770’s Philadelphia over that of Boston — I’ve tried hard, and openly, to demote the familiar Boston story in the public consciousness.
I know now I’ve been demoting Boston in my own consciousness too. I don’t give most of the famous elites of revolutionary Massachusetts the time of day.
Bad tactic. Yet I’m only now recognizing that it has been one of my tactics. Since I do care about reader confidence in my narratives — and I believe I usually earn it — this strange process of disdaining certain portions of the record needs exposure and attention. Grinding my teeth with irritation at the multitude of books that yet again rehearse and reiterate the stories of the big Boston names (“yeah, yeah, yeah,” I mutter, “Joseph Warren, James Warren, blah blah …”) is anything but a reason to blur them out.
For let’s face it, there are big 1770’s Philadelphia names, too, that I don’t know much about, precisely because others do. Those others have offended me by dissing and ignoring my guys, and I can’t, of course, make the big names disappear, so I rob them of their power (over me). I decline as a reader and writer to become as intimate with them as I am with the figures I promote.
That is: as a researcher and writer, I’m having the gangfight I’m also describing.
[UPDATE: It's a gangfight that takes two simultaneous forms: the struggle among groups during the founding period and the struggle among historians of that period. It takes place in a back alley in my mind.]
Some very embarrassing tendencies can’t be entirely helped. But when they come to light, they’re worth trying to learn from and ameliorate. Recently, reacting strenuously to a stunning error made by the columnist David Brooks — something like “In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds …” — I said that certain errors just can’t be corrected. The Times did try to correct Brooks’s error, in its online version, at first by simply replacing “Jesus” with “Paul,” which didn’t deal with “tells the crowds,” then later by making it “Paul wrote.”
All that those corrections really do is make it difficult for me to be sure, now, that I’m quoting the Brooks error exactly, since I recycled the print paper weeks ago. Too, there’s only my recollection, now, that the Times at first made the incomplete, intermediate correction I just mentioned. The proof has gone into the Orwellian memory hole. I know my memory of it is accurate — but I’m the guy who thought he knew that James Warren and Joseph Warren were brothers!
Yet while the Brooks episode was in progress, it revealed, among other things, that the person doing the correction at the Times cares as little about Paul’s letters to the Corinithinans as Brooks seems to — so little, in fact, that he or she believed at first that letting something like “tells the crowds” stand would be OK. In other words, the Times believes that the original error was merely, as the paper does still aver, the misattribution of a quote. That was worth knowing.
I’m not in favor of letting errors stand. I’m going to continue to engage — more than ever — in the most thoroughgoing self-monitoring I can muster. I bitterly hate making both little slips and serious, revealing errors. It’s like feeling the elevator cable snap. Because my books haven’t had the benefit of dedicated, professional fact-checking, the kind that some magazine articles undergo, I’ve taken some pride in the degree to which I (and my various editors) have managed to keep the work largely error-free. This post is inspired by a nasty wound to that pride.
Still: had I or someone else caught the Warren howler before publication, I only would have blanched, corrected it, said “phew!” and moved on. I wouldn’t have been forced to learn something about my problematic process and my attitude toward Boston. Only wounded pride inspires this kind of learning, at least in me, as I make my strange way through this strange phase of my career. More interesting (to me, not the Times) than making sure a piece is technically error-free is what the errors may show us. Things that the author may not want us — or himself — to know.