Caveat Lector: In the Archives

July 14, 2011

Over the years, I’ve had a chance to help a significant number of high school and college students and teachers wade into the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.  Visitors are almost always taken by the immediacy of the primary sources contained in ALBA.  For folks used to the apparent omniscience and neutrality of history textbooks, an encounter with the unique timbre of an individual voice from the past, transmitted via a handwritten letter from 75 years ago, can be truly exhilarating.

Ironically however, one of the greatest challenges of introducing people to archival primary sources is to get  them beyond that exhilaration, and to get them beyond the natural tendency to equate”immediacy” with “truth,” to confuse “being there” with “knowing all.”  It would be nice if primary sources revealed to us, like in an episode of CSI, every last detail of the scene of the crime, but alas, even the most immediate of accounts is partial, even the most declarative of sentences, an interpretation.

A person interested in desertions among IBers, for example, might come across this document in ALBA’s so-called “Moscow Microfilm” and add a few ticks to his or her tally of “desertors.”  It’s not at all an unreasonable thing to do; for here is an official document reporting desertions.  It’s only by chance –and thanks to the sleuthing Sebastiaan Faber and I did while trying to identify the black IBer in a portrait by the great Agustí Centelles— that I happen to know that the Cubans Bofill and González didn’t exactly desert; instead, they went on to serve with distinction as part of the Spanish-speaking platoon of the legendary Valentín González, alias El Campesino.  In our research, Sebastiaan and I learned, moreover, that early on, during the preparations for the Battle of Jarama, there was a significant amount of tension between the Spanish-speaking Lincolns and their English-speaking comrades; tensions which might well be the source of these extraofficial reassignments which, on paper, look like desertions.

Caveat Lector.