In Which Paper Sleuth Interviews Me About Writing, History, and Writing Heroines of Mercy Street

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This post is an object lesson in being careful what you ask for. Long-time reader Bart Ingraldi, who blogs about history at Paper Sleuth using paper ephemera as a lens for writing about issues that are anything but ephemeral* recently suggested I interview myself here on the Margins. Instead I turned the suggestion around and asked him to do the honors

Bart has graciously put together some tough and thoughtful questions about writing history in general and writing >Heroines of Mercy Street in particular. Let’s roll!

Bart: One question I’m always curious to hear a historian’s answer to is: “How would you explain the importance of History to someone?”

I’ll admit that history first caught my attention through the stories. And sometimes I think that enjoying the stories is enough. Stories are, after all, the most basic way we learn how the world works. (Sometimes to our detriment. I’m looking at you, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and your fairy tale sisters.)

Looking beyond the question of storytelling, for me, the importance of history comes down to the fact that we are all shaped by the past, whether we realize it or not. If we ignore the past, we walk through the world with blinders on. I don’t think it’s as simple as George Santanya’s often quoted aphorism that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”** Looking at a one-sided, un-nuanced version of the past is almost as limiting as not considering the past at all. I feel strongly that as a society we need to learn versions of history that aren’t often taught in high school history classes (or at least they weren’t taught in mine): the history of other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar.

Which I guess brings me right back to stories.

Bart: For Heroines of Mercy Street you spent a lot of time researching and writing about amazing women. Did you develop a special kinship with any of your characters?

I’m pretty squeamish, so the odds that I would have volunteered as a nurse are pretty slim. On the other hand, I can organize things like nobody’s business, so I felt more kinship with the unsung heroines on both sides of the war who turned their homes and churches into factories to produce luxuries and necessities for the troops. I was particularly taken with Louisa Lee Schuyler, who at the age of 24 was the youngest woman to manage a branch of the United States Sanitary Commission.*** Her experience with the USSC laid the groundwork for what would be a long and successful career as a reformer.

That said, two nurses in particular caught my imagination. Georgeanna Woolsey was a New York socialite who took all the trimming off one of her dresses and a bonnet, dressed her hair as plainly as possible and, to the amazement of her family, bluffed her way into a slot in the nurses training program run for a brief time by the Women’s Central Association of Relief. She brought that same sense of bravura to her work on the United States Sanitary Commissions hospital transport ships during the Peninsular Campaign. At the other end of the social scale was Amy Bradley Morris, a cobbler’s daughter from Maine who reinvented herself several times over the course of her life and was a tireless advocate for the soldiers under her care in the war. The thing they had in common was a refusal to be defined by social expectations.

Bart: In the book’s Introduction you offer a sweeping overview that perfectly sets the stage for what follows. And what follows is a story that both entertains and informs. Is the ability to keep the balance between the two – entertainment and information – something that comes naturally to you?

When it comes to writing, the tightrope walk between entertaining and information is my natural home. My advisor in graduate school often referred to my work as “Pam’s Purple Prose.” No matter how serious or scholarly the subject, I like to play with words, make smart-mouthed asides, and wander off into the weeds of historical trivia. (This will not come as a surprise to members of the Marginalia.) Which isn’t to say that it isn’t work. And I often err on the side of too dry or too self-indulgent–sometimes in the same manuscript. Thank heavens for editors, beta readers, and the chance to revise!

Bart: The fact that two thirds of deaths were caused by disease and not by battlefield wounds shows a monumental lack of preparedness concerning the handling of wounded troops. Do you feel that was due to the government’s thinking that the war would  come to a speedy end, and victory assured?

Certainly the fact that both sides expected the war to be over quickly played a role. The army’s Medical Bureau, which included some of the best trained doctors in the country, did not have the manpower or the supplies to cope with the sheer number of casualties in the early stages of the war.

But the prevalence of death by disease was more a function of the state of medical knowledge than a lack of preparedness. In the ten years following the Civil War, Joseph Lister would introduce carbolic acid as the first antiseptic, Louis Pasteur would pioneer the germ theory of disease and lay the foundations for the study of epidemiology, and Sir Thomas Allbutt would invent the first clinical thermometer–a revolutionary tool in light of how many deadly diseases initially manifest themselves as fever. But none of that was available to Civil War doctors and their patients.

With no understanding of how diseases were transmitted, the overcrowded and often unsanitary camps and hospitals were breeding grounds for contagious diseases.

Bart: Two powerful images from the book will stick with me. First, is the amount of human suffering caused by ignorance, greed and apathy. The second, is the transformation nursing made. The heroines you presented fought to take nursing from being a last resort or punishment for women, to an indispensable part of life. What are one or two things that impressed you the most?

I think the thing that impressed me most was the role volunteer nurses played as advocates for better care for the men they nursed. They took the domestic skills of running a household and applied them to running hospitals. Cleaner wards and better food made a tremendous difference. For that matter, so did cleaner men. A committee appointed by the Confederate Senate to investigate complaints about military medical care reported a ten percent mortality rate among soldiers nursed by men in male-run institutions compared to a mortality rate of five percent among soldiers nursed in hospitals with a strong female presence. So much for the common argument that nursing was no job for a woman!

Bart: If you had the power, what would you have added, deleted or tweaked in the television presentation?

As a whole, I think the PBS program did a good job with its presentation of Civil War nurses and medicine. I would have liked to see more of Dorothea Dix–on the other hand, she was such a powerful personality in real life that she might have taken over the show.

Bart: Did you visit Alexandria while doing research for the book?

Unfortunately, I did not. There simply wasn’t time. We finalized the deal for the book on July 15. I turned in my final revisions on October 18. (If you do the math, the correct answer is “not long enough”.)

I did visit Alexandria shortly after the book came out, thanks to an invitation to speak at Alexandria’s historical museum. Mansion House no longer exists, but it was thrilling to walk the streets in real life that I knew so well in my head and a delight to meet the local history professionals. If you’re looking for a history nerd weekend, I highly recommend it.

Bart: Writing is hard work. Considering the research, the writing, editing, rewriting, etc, etc. What routine do you have to make the writing process filled with less angst?

In the best of all possible worlds, I write or revise in the morning and read and research in the afternoon. When that schedule crumbles under the pressure of a deadline, I count on two things to get me through. First, I let the back of my brain to do its job. It’s amazing how the mind works its way through problems while you sleep, or chop vegetables, or lift weights–assuming that you get out of the way and give it a chance. Second, I count on input from My Own True Love, who listens to me talk through the sticky points, reads my drafts, and tells me when I’ve drifted off topic or leaned too hard on a joke.

Bart: I guess a good follow-up to the previous question would be – do you agree with Dorothy Parker’s quote, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

On the good days, when the ideas flow and the words sparkle, writing is like dancing. On the days when I struggle for every word, it’s like lifting weights. The funny thing is, both dancing and lifting weights leave you feeling better for having done it. Writing is the same way. Sometimes I love writing. Sometimes I hate writing. I always love having written.

One additional item from Bart: Towards the end of your book you talk about Mary Phinney von Olnhausen’s second nursing career during the Franco-Prussian War, her heroics, and how she was awarded the Iron Cross. And how in 1902 she subsequently met Prince Henry, Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother, in Boston.

You may find it interesting that in 2002, papers were discovered in a German military archive that detail the Kaiser’s plan to invade the United States. He first started formulating his plan in 1897. It went through various incarnations before the final plan, Operation Plan III, was settled upon, around 1903 or 04. The plan called for the invasion of New York and Boston. It’s unlikely that the Princes’ visit to Boston in 1902 wasn’t connected to the planned invasion. And your heroine,
selfless Mary, was once again touching History. The invasion is called off in 1906.

This is the kind of tidbit that keeps me hooked on history!

Thank you, Bart, for taking on the task.

*If you’re not already familiar with his blog, I strongly urge you to check it out.

**Though sometimes it is. That’s why I write an occasional blog post in the category I call Déjà vu All Over Again.

***She beat out her own mother for the job.

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