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W. Caleb McDaniel Responds

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 38, Number 1, March 2010
pp. 181-182 | 10.1353/rah.0.0193

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W. Caleb McDaniel Responds

As my review noted, I find John Stauffer’s award-winning scholarship “extremely salutary” and always “thought-provoking.” I never intended to dismiss him or his work.

In reply, however, Stauffer draws several generalizations about me. He attributes my analysis to animosity and intolerance of ambiguity, suggests I was not taught how to read properly, and groundlessly insinuates that homophobic assumptions clouded my judgment. I cannot respond to all these charges here, nor is this the place to do so. The most personal charges are only answerable by my life and by those who best know me and my work.

I never denied that Douglass and Lincoln shared commonalities. My main question was whether these parallels demonstrate friendship. I focused on Stauffer’s description of them as “friends” because it is one of the claims that most distinguishes Giants from two other recent books on Lincoln and Douglass. All three note their antagonistic, “utilitarian” relationship. But Giants stresses that they felt mutual affection, forgiveness, and ease in each other’s company.

Perhaps these giants did enjoy genuine camaraderie. My point is that the nature of the evidence makes it hard to know. Likenesses between them do not prove “they wanted to like each other” or that they ultimately did (p. 24). And the “utilitarian” nature of their alliance makes their few meetings difficult to use as evidence of their feelings, especially since only Douglass described the interviews. I do not emphasize that Douglass’ memory was “faulty,” though Stauffer notes it sometimes was (p. 322, n.13). My point was that Douglass’ reports of the interviews were also always politically charged self-representations.

Perhaps, “as self-made men who continually transformed themselves,” Douglass and Lincoln did conclude that they “needed to forgive” each other “to continue evolving.” But how far this motive moved them, rather than the fact that they “needed each other” for political reasons, is hard to know (pp. 291–92). If noting this difficulty is all Stauffer intended, then differences between us are slight. But it appeared important to Giants especially that this mutual “interracial friendship” became more than utilitarian.

I regret my implication that Lincoln, not Stanton, promised Douglass’ commission, though that detail is not crucial here or for Stauffer, who says Lincoln knew of Stanton’s promise (pp. 23–24). The possibility remains that in his memoir Douglass had multiple reasons to represent himself as a black leader who had enjoyed Lincoln’s intimate trust, both to claim Lincoln’s mantle for his particular reform agenda and to chastise Lincoln’s successors.

Stauffer concludes by speculating that an unrelated teaching tool he found on my website explains how I read books for a scholarly review. I wrote “How [End Page 181] to Read for History” to help undergraduates read effectively for a semester-long history course, and notwithstanding Stauffer’s highly selective excerpts, the essay encourages students to read books carefully, more than once, constantly adjusting their judgments as they reread.1 I, too, gave Giants a careful reading, and I encourage interested readers to judge the book for themselves.

W. Caleb McDaniel
Rice University

Footnotes

1. Caleb McDaniel, “How to Read for History,” http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~wcm1/howtoread.html (accessed January 5, 2010).

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