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Everyone’s a comedian. Or maybe not.

Today’s entry is by Arlene.

I’m feeling a little self-indulgent today as my vacation time is coming to a rapid end.  Since Nicole has shared some of her favorite excerpts from the Edwin Glenn diary, I’d like to share mine.  Keep in mind, I haven’t read the whole diary.  I just had to read and retype the last 50 or so pages of the transcript awhile back when we discovered that we didn’t have an electronic version of it preparatory to Nicole starting work on the project.  So this is part of Edwin Glenn’s last full entry in the diary from the 1898 expedition.  It’s one of the single longest entries in the diary, and with the exception of the weather report, probably never intended for a formal audience.  And I think it truly captures his sense of humor (or perhaps the effects of sustained lack of sleep.)   I think sometimes it’s easy for archivists and researchers to treat documents as raw data, something to be processed, and to lose sight of the real people behind the creation of the document.  Diary excerpts like these help ground me and remind me that documentation can never truly be separated from the individual or individuals who have authored it.

Before I share the diary entry with you, I want to go off on a tangent.  A few years back I was working for the Utah State Archives when a researcher came in who was working on a book on the development of the Lincoln Highway.  The researcher was Pete Davies and the book that was the result of his research was American Road. One of the main individuals in that book was another U.S. Army General-to-be, Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Who apparently in his early career was quite the practical joker, at least according to Davies.  I haven’t done a study of Army generals and senses of humor, but it is nice to know that once away from the formalities of their duties and official report writing, they can let their hair down.  (Or in Glenn’s case, rub some of it off.)

Oct 23rd 98                        Weather a.m. clear

                                                P.m. ” 

Again I awoke to find a most beautiful morning – The sun shone out of a perfectly clear sky – I was awake early and in fact I might add I was awake late – I took a berth in the after part of the cabin.  Every one else had retired and I being naturally bashful turned down the lamp then retired behind the portiere.  There was no light except from this lamp as my berth was below the water level – I was soon in dishabille and naturally did not dare to open the portiere as ladies were both in front and behind me.  This was in part the cause of my undoing since I could not throw light enough on my seat of trouble to rectify it.  I refer to my berth which ran lengthwise of the boat.  It was under that occupied by the engineer – who by the way was asleep on his own and snoring but wakeful with all and cranky to a degree when aroused by people turning in or talking in the cabin – The only difference between my own and his bunk aside from the elevation is that he can stretch his feet out while I had to push all of my body below the hips through a hole about 1 ½ feet square.  In the 1st place I tried to find my pillow but could not, so I hastily piled my clothes at the place where the pillow should be and in so doing covered up entirely one of my double blankets, an accident which I did not find discover until near morning when I returned from a trip on deck.  I did find another double blanket however which I carefully wrapped around both feet – as far as it would go – and tried to push them both through the hole in the wall above mentioned.  This was soon found to be an impossibility although I broke off a collar button in my efforts to do so.  I then brought my knees up under my chin wrapped up one foot in the blanket and by dint of much profanity and considerable perspiration managed to get both feet through.  I put the unexposed foot on top of the bare one said my prayers in which I asked for more cover, more steam heat and less frost and tried to sleep.  This was out of the question of course as my poor bared foot refused to get warm by reason of association with its mate but insisted on more cover – I am glad the wheel was not turning as both were directly over. I put in the next two hours in trying to be impartial towards my feet – To do this required considerable engineering as the blanket would insist on getting caught in the sides of the aforementioned hole in the wall.  In the mean time my head was propped up so high that I either had to flatten my nose against the upper berth or rub all the hair off of my forehead and temples – I am sure my wife will not recognize me.  After some hours of this I was forced to go up on deck to — get a breath of fresh air and when I returned I found my other blanket.  I put then put one on each foot worked them through into the hole one at a time but one slipped through its covering and struck what I took to be a cake of ice, but which proved to be a rubber blanket. –

He left off the story here.  No doubt he was called away to deal with return preparations.  But I think this entry gives us a glimpse of someone who had a real gift for comedic writing, something he probably couldn’t indulge in his official military work.  That perfectly placed dash.  “I was forced to go up on deck to — get a breath of fresh air…”  Just wonderful.

On a more serious note, I’d like to point out that this comedic turn is not the all of Edwin F. Glenn.  It’s also easy, when you only have the records of a short period in a person’s life, to form a view of that individual that is not fully representative.  Thanks to an observant researcher, we recently learned that in 1902, then-Major Edwin F. Glenn was one of the first members of the U.S. military convicted by a military court for engaging in waterboarding insurgents in the Philippines.  The conviction didn’t wipe out his career: he eventually obtained the rank of Major General. So which is Edwin F. Glenn?  The Captain who could laugh at his own attempts to keep his feet warm at night?  Or the Major who engaged in what many regard as torture?  Or the commander of the 83rd Infantry in World War 1?  Or the husband of Louise Smith and father of four children?  All.  And more.  None negate the others and all point out the need, when researching, to remember to assess the documentation you’re working with within a much larger context.  

A&SC holds only Glenn’s 1898 Alaska expedition diary.  Which, while illustrative of one short period in his life, is not the whole of Edwin F. Glenn.  It’s easy to try and make judgments about people based on the documentation we’ve seen, but that’s maybe why I as an archivist try as much as possible not to make those judgments when making papers accessible to researchers.  Whether or not that’s part of my role as an archivist is up for some debate, but in the end, I think my focus must be the researcher: to let the researcher know what we have, what we don’t have, let them read the documentation we do have themselves, and let them make up their own minds and decide when they have enough context to make their own assessments of the subject of their research.  

And to some researchers, perhaps his later career or his personal life is irrelevant.  If you’re just researching early coal mining development along Cook Inlet, the fact that Edwin Glenn was married to Louise Smith is probably irrelevant to your research.  You’re more likely to want to know what his educational background was, was he really able to assess the value of coal deposits personally or was he reporting information provided by others?  And if he was reporting what others said, how reliable were those individuals?  If that’s what you’re seeking, for us to provide a lot of information about his later career, a time not reflected in the original documents we hold, could be distracting and at worst, misleading.  So I try to find a balance point so we provide enough information that researchers can find the records in our holdings relevant to their topics, but not to allow our description to get in the way of the researcher’s own decision-making or judgment-making processes.  Sometimes I strike that balance.  Sometimes I don’t. But I hope I’ll keep trying: I think it’s one of the most important professional goals an archivist can have.  Some day, somebody else can judge how successful I was.   And I hope they’ll use as much of the documentary evidence as they can find to make that judgment.  

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