This morning John Y. Simon’s obituary (see below for new link) appeared in the New York Times. It proved to be interesting reading. What first drew my attention were the following two paragraphs:
The volumes helped cement Grant’s place as a literary memoirist and not just a war diarist. But perhaps more important, said Harold Holzer, an Abraham Lincoln scholar and a senior vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they changed the nature of documentary editing, bringing the perspective of a biographer rather than a cataloger to the enterprise.
“He changed the whole ethos of presidential papers,” Mr. Holzer said in an interview Wednesday. “He matched incoming correspondence with outgoing, so researchers would have a complete episode. He included editorial commentary that was more substantial than footnotes. He wrote introductions to each volume. They’re a model for the Jefferson papers, the Wilson papers; he’s the father of this whole discipline.”
I’m not sure where to begin in correcting this rather erroneous assessment of the place of John Y. Simon in Civil War historiography and the practice of documentary editing, but here goes:
First, Grant wrote a memoir, not a war diary. I’m not sure how the publication of the papers enhanced Grant’s literary reputation, except to prove that he wrote far more than some previous people had claimed that that his letters were still around, contradicting an earlier claim by William Best Hesseltine. Perhaps that’s a matter of opinion and interpretation. What follows, however, is grounded in sheer ignorance at best. Apparently Mr. Holzer is unaware that the presidential papers of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson preceded the publication of the first volume of the Grant papers in 1967. Volume one of the Jefferson papers, edited by Julian Boyd, appeared in 1950. The first volume of the Wilson papers appeared in 1966. Those papers were edited by a team headed by distinguished Wilson biographer Arthur Link. It would be far more accurate to say that Boyd’s editing style informed that of his successors, and certainly Link brought a biographer’s insight to Wilson before Simon did (for, after all, Simon never did compose a biography of Grant, although he wrote extensively about him).
Anyone who takes a look at either the Jefferson or Wilson papers will see extensive footnotes and commentary: indeed, Boyd had a practice of going on and on about the documents he was editing. So did other projects, including one with which I had more than a passing familiarity, the Papers of Andrew Johnson (which also first appeared in 1967), in which the introductions eventually came to dwarf those available in the Grant papers to the point of excess. Both projects published volumes related to the papers, something the Grant papers tried once in a series of essays. If anyone’s the father of the modern discipline of editing the papers of a president, it’s Julian Boyd. John himself was content to be called “the dean of documentary editing,” although that term was also used to describe Link.
Besides, as people who work on documentary editions know all too well, it’s a team effort. Simon didn’t edit Grant’s papers all by himself: he supervised a team of people who did a great deal of work. He acknowledged as much in accepting the Lincoln Prize. Sometimes people unfamiliar with the practice of documentary editing (as sadly seems to be the case with Mr. Holzer) should keep that in mind.
John Y. Simon’s contributions in assisting people to understand the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant remain substantial enough to stand the test of time, garner praise, and deserve our gratitude without misrepresenting them. In my opinion, the obituary’s misinformed (and also contains a serious lapse of judgment). There are better ways to remind people of John’s achievements: see here and here.
Sometimes one needs to be saved from one’s friends.