Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Research Rapture

Reading the 1880-1890s County Capital newspapers
While going through the clippings and notes I save, I discovered a clipping from a newspaper--probably the 'New York Times' judging from the typeset.  The essay is written by Janice P. Nimura, and she introduced me to the term "research rapture."  The experience she describes in the article is not new to me.  She describes research rapture as "the rare and ecstatic moment when you slip the bounds of the present and follow a twinkling detail into the past."  Of course, she is talking about an author doing research.

Those of you who follow my blog know about my discovery of Isaac Werner's journal and my decision that his story, and the story of the southcentral region of Kansas during the Populist Movement, should be told.  I believed that his story deserved more that simply transcribing the journal for publication, although I did transcribe it.  Rather, I began researching his community during the Populist Movement, keeping Isaac's journal at the heart of my story but expanding my quest to cemeteries, courthouses, museums,, old newspapers, photographs, state archives, interviews with descendants, visits to towns where Isaac lived, the internet, and of course, books.

Visiting the river near Rossville, Il where Isaac loved to walk
In Janice Nimura's case, she was searching for a subject, knowing only that she was interested in Japan in the late 1800s.  Her moment of "research rapture" came from a memoir titled "A Japanese Interior," which finally gave her direction to a book subject after three years of searching.

In my case, I knew I wanted to write about Isaac and the Populist Movement, but I was open to finding the best way to tell his story.  My "research rapture" happened many times as I explored Isaac and the late 1800s.  Some of my discoveries found their way into this blog, although they did not fit directly into the manuscript.  Nevertheless, they enriched my understanding of the region during that time period.  They helped to guide the direction I would ultimately take in telling history.

Visiting Isaac's Grave
I prefer reading from what I consider "real" books, not e-books or audio books but rather printed books in my own hands.  In doing my research for the manuscript, our library grew.  I read books mentioned in Isaac's journal, books from that era, locally published books about the region or specific communities (often published for centennials or other special occasions), biographies and autobiographies, documents from the period, and scholarly books.  Of course, I also searched online.

It was Nimura's comments about searching online that drew me to her article.  She wrote:  "Search algorithms leave no room for serendipity, and without that, some of the magic leaks out of the pursuit of the past.  I had to be efficient in my research; that's where Google came in.  But whenever possible, I tried to create space for aimless wandering, and every time, the story became more vivid."

Those words spoke directly to me. Nimura's "aimless wandering" may have been done online, but my wandering was not confined within a keypad, book covers, or walls.  My husband and I visited Rossville, Il and Wernersville, Pa, although there is little in the book about those places Isaac lived before coming to Kansas.  We visited his mother's lonely grave in Abilene, Ks., as well as graves of his father and siblings.  I researched the genealogy of all of Isaac's neighbors and acquaintances mentioned in the journal.  I spent days reading all of the weekly editions of the County Capital, the populist newspaper in St. John to which Isaac subscribed and for which he often wrote.  Whether this wandering ended up directly in the manuscript or not, it deepened my understanding of Isaac and the period about which I was writing.

As Nimura wrote:  "It's not enough to find every mention of a specific event, even though algorithms make it easy.  Sometimes the telling detail--the yeast that makes the whole lump rise--isn't in the headline you're reading.  It's in the gossip column on the next page, or in the classifieds tucked in the back."  In my case, the telling details may have been found in such places as an old cemetery or inside an old volume at the courthouse.  Thank you Janice Nimura for putting so beautifully into words the importance of research rapture and the unanticipated discovery.  It is what has lifted Isaac Werner off of the faded pages of his journal to bring him and southcentral Kansas back to life as farmers struggled to survive and created a political movement to help them.  
Reading what Isaac read

No comments: