The Cutting Room Floor
Given the theme of this issue—history and the movies—it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the historian’s variant of the cutting room floor. Any historian who has ever written a seminar paper, book, or article, curated an exhibition, or taught a lecture course knows that some things get left out. We do our research, we organize our findings, and then we engage in the ruthless editing that incorporates the relevant stack of evidence and tosses aside the rest. Tangential themes, context, anecdotes, illustrations, and interpretive comments might not fit into the word limit, the wall space, or the fifty-minute lecture, and some of the most compelling bits gleaned from our sources might in the end stray too far from the points we hope to make. Whatever is lopped from the final product lands with a thud on the cutting room floor. It’s a necessary part of the process, but for me at least, there’s usually some regret.
For this column, I asked four historians to write about something they left out—but wished to share—from their recently published books. What did they cut and why?
But first, let me start with an example of my own. My current book manuscript looks at U.S. involvement in campaigns against global poverty in the 1970s and 1980s, and asks how and why anti-poverty programs came to focus on the economic activities of women. In the course of my research, I conducted an oral history interview with Martha (Marty) Alter Chen, whose name I first encountered in the Ford Foundation records on women in Bangladesh. Chen, I learned, grew up in India, the child of ecumenical missionaries. She went to college and graduate school in the U.S. and returned to South Asia in 1970 when her husband accepted a public health service assignment in Dhaka. Just a few months later, she found her calling. After a cyclone ravaged East Pakistan, she joined with three other women to organize disaster relief. In 1971, she witnessed the Pakistani military’s massacre of Bengalis and documented the genocide (“bodies, blood,” she told me) with testimony that eventually reached the U.S. Senate. Evacuated to the U.S., she worked for Bangladesh’s independence during its war of liberation. After returning to Bangladesh, she helped launch BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), which started as postwar refugee relief and is now the world’s largest NGO, and she led its women’s program through the 1970s. In the 1980s, she moved back to India, where she ran Oxfam America’s first operations there, and in the 1990s, she co-founded WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), an international grassroots network that she coordinated for two decades and still advises today.
This barebones outline of Chen’s extraordinary career doesn’t do her justice (and doesn’t even mention that her brother was a Bollywood star), but even this thumbnail sketch didn’t make it into my manuscript. Ultimately, I had to concede that the details of Chen’s life were not central to the story I needed to tell. But I used the research reports she wrote, and I have, I hope, incorporated the spirit of her interview with its account of transnational collaborations, life-altering events, and activist commitments.
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My recent book, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract takes as its central archive a collection of 134 triptychs, composed with colored pencil on paper by my great-aunt Susan Deloria between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s. While this work—her “personality prints” project—represents the vast majority of her artistic output, Sully (the name she used as an artist) also drew ethnographic plates for her sister, Ella Deloria, as well as literary illustrations for a collection of Dakota Indian legends Ella hoped to publish as a trade book.
While I was able to gesture to the literary illustrations and offer a bit of comparative analysis of the ethnographic plates, the real analytical work I had done with both of these secondary archives ended up on the cutting room floor. The major reasons, unsurprisingly, were space and cost. I was already over the word count. More crucially, the book has 260 color images, which required significant subvention assistance and kept me attuned to costs. The real pressure was not around words, then, but illustrations. I decided to include six of the ethnographic images—they fit an argument about stylistic continuity and the overlap of two distinct genres—which meant cutting all of what was emerging as a substantive discussion of the illustrations. I was torn between a more comprehensive analysis of the artist (that threatened to sprawl out of control) and a tighter, more revealing focus on a coherent body of work. I chose the latter—not happily, but with no serious regrets.
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Sisters and Rebels weaves together the stories of three sisters who were born into a former slaveholding family and steeped in the culture of white supremacy and devotion to the “Lost Cause.” Elizabeth Lumpkin, the eldest, was a wildly popular orator on the early twentieth-century Confederate veterans’ reunion circuit. Grace rose to fame with the publication of a proletarian novel, To Make My Bread (1932). Katharine, the youngest, is best known for her 1946 autobiography, The Making of a Southerner.
My first article about this project was a meditation on biography’s promise to resolve paradoxes and reveal hidden truths, especially in the case of women like the Lumpkin sisters whose papers had been lost or destroyed. Decades later, after Sisters and Rebels was at the press, I picked up the phone and heard a woman’s voice say, “Jacquelyn, I have something that will help you with your book.” It turned out that a grandniece had found Elizabeth's papers in a proverbial attic. She sent them to me box by box until my dining room was overflowing. I went through them all. What I learned would have deepened my portrait of a woman who shored up white supremacy even as, like her more unconventional sisters, she reinvented herself as a modern woman. But it would not have fundamentally changed my story. Reluctantly, I steered Elizabeth’s papers into the archives, leaving some wonderful insights into female ambition, Confederate memorialization, and early twentieth-century family life on the cutting room floor.
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When it came to illustrations for Birthright Citizens, I started out inspired. I had spent time with poet Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen and admired how she paired her words with evocative works of art, all of them created by African American artists. I wondered if I could take a similar approach and illustrate my book with materials produced by African American activists in antebellum Baltimore. I hoped that I could use their images to further the argument. It turned out to be a tall order. I had lots of representations of black Baltimoreans and their community, but none produced by them. What I did have were lots of documents—thousands of pieces of court ephemera—some of which were signed or marked by the litigants at the heart of my story. When I looked closely, what came into view were some signatures and lots of marks, made by people who acknowledged their assent, admitted their culpability, or otherwise expressed their legal agency by the making of an “x.” I spent many hours with those “x” marks, beginning to understand that they were highly individualized, reflecting the conditions under which they were made and the signatory’s experience with a quill and ink. I collected the marks and even gave a talk about them. But when it came time to choose illustrations, I went a more conventional route. I still have the images of those marks on my hard drive and my mind. I still hope to get back to them. They are fascinating.
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What’s on my cutting room floor? Lepers.
That sounds bad. Let me explain. I recently published a book in which I argued that all five senses shaped state and human encounters in imperial India and the Philippines. Britons and Americans sought to civilize, in their own terms, their allegedly difficult subjects, which meant in part protecting the senses against offense.
Leprosy in India and the Philippines affronted every sense. Anglo-Americans were horrified to see leprous disfigurement, to hear the cries of lepers begging, to smell the odor of those afflicted, by the fear that their food might have been contaminated, and by the thought that they might be touched by a leper and so infected with the disease. The imperialists found lepers disgusting, and disgust was the root of their conviction that they had come to savage lands that required revision of all five senses.
Leprosy made it into the book. But much of what I collected got left out. Details concerning variations in colonial Indian policy, conditions at the Culion Island leper colony established by the Americans in the Philippines, and the dreadful treatments devised by the Anglo-Americans for those with the disease could have formed a long chapter. They got seven pages.
This was partly a matter of limited space. But there was also my rising conviction that a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. Too much observed revulsion becomes our own; we become voyeurs and thus complicit with those who made it a marker of their own civilizational superiority. Some things belong on the cutting room floor.
Joanne Meyerowitz is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 and How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, and the editor of Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 and History and September 11th. Her current book project is tentatively titled A War on Global Poverty: The U.S., Development, and the Politics of Gender.