Monday, February 10, 2014

Author Spotlight: Michael E. Shay

In the midst of the Philippine-American War, twenty-two-year-old Robert Dexter Carter served in Manila as a civilian quartermaster clerk. Through his letters to his family, he provided a vivid picture of army life in Manila—the sights, the smells, and his responses to the native culture. In addition to his letters, his diary, and several related articles present a firsthand account of the historic voyage of the United States Army Transport Grant through the Suez Canal to Manila in early 1899. Carter’s writings not only tell of his sometimes harrowing experiences but also reveal the aspirations and fears of a young man not quite sure of his next steps on life’s journey.  Enhanced by photographs from collections at the Library of Congress and the Military History Institute, as well as many of Carter’s own whimsical drawings, the book will appeal to armchair historians and scholars alike.

Q: How did you come across Robert D. Carter’s story?
History does not take place in a vacuum, and the study and writing of it often takes me in many directions. That is a large part of the enjoyment and the challenge of writing history. Sometimes I just don’t know where the idea for the next book will come from.  In some way, you could almost say that the book picks me.

Carter’s story is a direct outgrowth from my research for a biography of Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Edwards. As a younger officer, Edwards served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Henry Lawton during the Philippine War. Young Carter served as a civilian quartermaster in Lawton’s division. He was also the son of a good friend and former colleague of Lawton, and he owed his job to that connection. I came across a reference to a collection that contained Carter’s diary and letters, and I followed up with the curator of the materials.

Q: What was the context for the Philippine War?
The Philippine War was fairly inevitable, but somewhat accidental in its timing. Inevitable because of the increasing demands for expansion during the 1890’s by important persons like Theodore Roosevelt and others who wished to project American power abroad, particularly in the Pacific Rim. They were referred to as “Imperialists.” The instrument used for this extension would be the United States Navy, and given the technology of the day, the warships would need coaling stations, among other things. There was tremendous pressure to annex Hawaii, for instance. Increased trade, they argued, was sure to follow. Accidental, because when we went to war with Spain in 1898, Commodore George Dewey was ordered to Manila to take on the Spanish fleet anchored in Manila Bay. His victory in May 1898 was so swift and so total that the United States was left with a dilemma: How much or how little of the Philippine Islands do we want to retain? The problem was the fact that there was a simmering insurrection in the islands, and we initially sent a mixed signal to the rebels that we would not stand in their way. In fact, the U. S. transported several prominent rebels back to Manila from their exile. It came to a head, when President McKinley decided to keep the entire archipelago. Since Spain was defeated, the insurrectos, angered at what they saw as American duplicity, turned their attention to the new landlord.

Q: What did you enjoy most about Carter’s story?
I enjoyed getting to know young Carter. Although the language of his Diary is spare, not so with his lengthy letters. Like many young people he was ambitious, and in his case, he was undoubtedly chasing his father’s shadow. Newly married, he felt that the Philippine War was important enough to leave his wife and join with other young men to do his part. He was frustrated by the fact that he did not receive a commission, yet he had enough pride to want to do his best as a quartermaster clerk. Just reading his letters aloud, you can hear a young man conflicted about what he wanted to do next with his life, as well as how he met his day to day challenges alone in a foreign place, in the absence of his obviously close-knit family.

Q: Why did you leave some of Carter’s obviously racist language in the book?
I weighed this problem very carefully, but in the end, it was a fairly easy decision. I believe that the function of a historian is to tell a story as accurately and as straightforwardly as possible. It is not the function of a historian to “sanitize” the record. As has been said many times, 'we need to know where we have been in order to know where we are going.' Unfortunately, racism is an ugly part of our past history, and, to an extent, exists at the present time. To deny it is not being truthful, and Carter’s is an authentic voice for his time.

Q: What are the challenges in editing a book of someone’s letters?
Aside from the obvious, like poor handwriting and lack of punctuation, the next biggest challenge was identifying the people and places that Carter referred to. Obviously, his correspondents already knew without asking. I had to determine how these people and places fit into the overall story, and whether or not they were important enough to merit an endnote. I also had to be somewhat selective in what to retain (most) and what to cut-out (relatively small). Unlike most history, which is often told chronologically and as a big picture, the letters were mostly personal, day to day anecdotes. So, the biggest challenge, and the most fun, was placing the letters in the context of the larger story of the Philippine War. That called for even more research and study, which is the really interesting part.

Q: How will future generations learn about life in the 21st Century?
This is a cause of some concern for me. For one thing, during the last 100 years or so we as a people have been gradually moving away from letter writing and the teaching of cursive. We rely too much upon technology, and our people-to-people contacts are becoming more remote. Language has become very spare, and we communicate with fractions of words and little punctuation. There is a coarsening and cheapening of language. Communication is becoming more visual (e.g. Skype), and we often see, but we don’t hear. Technology makes it easy to manipulate just what we see (e. g. Photoshop). Moreover, vehicles like Twitter give everyone the feeling that every single thing they do, moment to moment has great significance. The job of a historian is, in part, to sort through the information, verify it, gauge its significance, and draw accurate conclusions. While it is easier by far to obtain and share information these days, there is so much data system-wide that it is often harder to do that important job of winnowing. With all that clutter, will future generations have the patience to do so? If not, I fear that the picture will be distorted.

Read an excerpt of A Civilian in Lawton’s 1899 Philippine Campaign here.