Coming For To Carry Me Home, Part I
My latest work, a history of race relations during the nineteenth century, is titled Coming For To Carry Me Home: Race in America From Abolitionism to Jim Crow. Rowman & Littlefield will publish the book late in 2011. In this posting, I will describe the labyrinthine process required to shepherd the work from conception to (almost) publication.
Abraham Lincoln is a central character in Coming For To Carry Me Home. As you might imagine, Civil War topics, especially Lincoln, are hot properties this year. Owing to the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter and its long, bloody aftermath, public interest in the Civil War is on the rise. When I first conceived of the book project during the summer of 2006, I foolishly thought the manuscript would be an easy sell as the anniversary approached.
Boy, was I naïve!
Three subjects typically rack up huge sales numbers in the United States: Books about Lincoln, books about medical topics, and books about pets and animals. The long-standing joke among would-be authors of nonfiction who salivate at the thought of penning a runaway bestseller is that if you want a guaranteed blockbuster, you should write a book titled Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.
This is what passes for humor among mid-list authors who dream of the big-time. I count myself among this sorry set of sad sacks.
What I did not count on was the humongous number of books about Abraham Lincoln in print. Virtually every aspect of the man’s life and career has been dissected endlessly, endlessly. Books detail Lincoln’s prowess as a military commander in chief and politician extraordinaire, his remarkable facility with the English language, his humane moral philosophy, his clinical depression, his tumultuous relationship with his wife, his latent homosexuality, and even, in one tongue-in-cheek satire, his illustrious career as a vampire slayer. The list of books about the sixteenth president goes on and on and on almost ad infinitum.
What could I, as a novice scholar, add to the already rich, lengthy Lincoln canon?
I eventually chose to explore a political topic. After all, my formal education is in political science. Yet, even after I picked the topic, my plans changed.
Coming For To Carry Me Home began as one thing, and ended as another. It began as an examination of President Lincoln’s troubled relationship with the radical members of his party, and it ended as a history of the politics surrounding U.S. race relations during the half century between the rise of the abolitionist movement and the dawn of the Jim Crow era.
The evolution of the manuscript occurred because it became clear as I researched and wrote the text that the story of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans could best be understood and appreciated in the broader context of nineteenth-century race relations. To understand how Lincoln and his contemporaries viewed race, one must first delve into the origins of abolitionism and the turbulent decade of the 1830s, when that generation of political and military leaders came of age. To appreciate the consequences of Lincoln’s policy disputes with the Radicals, one must follow the meandering trail through Reconstruction, Redemption, and the beginnings of legal segregation in the 1880s.
I commenced my initial library research toward the end of August 2006. On many weekends until January 2007, I visited the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and crawled around in the stacks, reading periodicals, newspapers, and books about the Civil War era. I scribbled copious notes into a spiral notebook and ran innumerable photocopies. Whole forests gave their lives that I might procure research material.
Some sources are available online, but many nineteenth century documents lie buried in libraries and archives. I was nothing, if not diligent. The library became my home away from home.
Around the first of the year, I was ready to prepare a book proposal to submit to potential publishers. I got sidetracked for several months as my mother fell grievously ill and eventually succumbed to cancer on February 10, 2007. That whole experience of her death -- the subject of a 500-page unpublished manuscript that I wrote and may one day blog about -- kept me preoccupied until May 2007.
When I returned to the Lincoln project, I wrote a 30-page book proposal in approximately six weeks. The proposal outlined the topic, discussed the expected chapters, listed the sources I intended to use, and explained the contribution I felt this book would make to Civil War literature.
Because it is difficult for a mid-list author to find a good, legitimate literary agent, I have always served as my own manuscript peddler. Thus, I developed a list of publishers who might be interested in reading my proposal.
In June 2007, I submitted the proposal to a prestigious university press in the Tar Heel State via snail mail. This press is well-known for publishing high-quality Civil War books. A month after I submitted the proposal, I sent an e-mail query to the editor-in-chief asking if he had received the manuscript. Yes, he replied. He had received it. That was the last communication I would ever receive from him. As the months dragged on, I made phone calls, fired off progressively hysterical follow-up e-mails, and even sent a letter in the mail asking about the status of the proposal. To this day, I have heard nothing else from the press.
By November 2007, I realized that silence was tantamount to a “no.” I am a quick study.
I will spare you the sordid details, but beginning in November 2007 and running through May 2008, I submitted the proposal to seven different publishers. At least I received a response in each case, although in six of the seven, the response was “no.”
The last publisher, the University Press of Florida, had printed my co-edited collection of essays, Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South, in 2000. I knew the editor-in-chief, and she responded enthusiastically to my query. In fact, she agreed to publish the Lincoln book. With great fanfare, I signed a contract in May 2008. It was time to pop the cork on the champagne!
Or so I thought.
Although I had been researching and writing parts of the book during the laborious process of seeking a publisher, I had not finished a first draft. Reinvigorated by signing a book contract, I threw myself into the project with reckless abandon beginning in May 2008.
The finished product originally was due in August 2009; unfortunately, no matter how hard I worked and how many books and articles I read to prepare the manuscript, I always found new sources, new information, new material. Eventually, I had to cut off the research or I would have spent the rest of my natural life ensconced in the Woodruff Library, hunched over yellowing, moldy newspapers and magazines in a deluded quest to exhaust the Civil War literature. I have learned through bitter experience that you can never exhaust that literature; you can only exhaust yourself.
My editor was extremely supportive and understanding when I repeatedly asked for extensions on the due date. Never was heard a discouraging word.
Finally, on March 31, 2010, I proudly submitted the manuscript as a 606-page Microsoft Word file attached to an email.
I had to wait on pins and needles for months as the editor submitted the book to peer-review. For those of you unfamiliar with peer-review, it might properly be categorized as one of Dante’s circles of hell. The manuscript is sent to one or more recognized scholars in the field. He or she will tear your work apart with ego-bashing glee and tell you exactly what an idiot you are. If you have a thin skin or a fragile ego, my advice is never to submit to peer-review.
On July 28, 2010, my editor contacted me and indicated that two peer-reviewers had read my work. Their opinions could not have been more diverse. Anonymous reviewer number one wrote, “The major problem with this manuscript is that it makes no new contribution to scholarship whatsoever.” Therefore, in his or her opinion, “Scholars would quickly dismiss the present manuscript as unoriginal and shapeless. It makes no original contribution to understanding, knowledge, or interpretation and that would be highlighted in review after review…. Given what I’ve said, I think it’s painfully clear that I do not think this manuscript merits publication, and that it is not a case of making some simple or minor revisions.”
Ouch! I want my mama.
I seriously considered abandoning the project at that moment. Maybe I should cut my losses and move on to a more fruitful enterprise. Although I thought I had written a good book, obviously I was biased. A recognized scholar in the field, albeit under a cloak of anonymity, had judged my work, and found it wanting.
Reviewer number two wrote: “First, I want to express my heartfelt apologies for how remiss I have been in getting this review to the press. Especially since this is such a wonderful manuscript, I owe the author a special apology. This year just got out of control. Both the author and the press deserve better; this is a terrific and important manuscript that deserves to be published. And I strongly recommend publication.” He or she made many suggestions for revisions, but the scholar concluded: “By combining his study of the Radicals and Lincoln and putting it into the context of nineteenth century race relations, Martinez has deepened our understanding of both. And, finally, Martinez is a good writer, and the manuscript is a fun read. Some of the writing is really inspired and beautiful.”
Did these reviewers read the same book?
My editor split the difference. “While the book in its present form is not ready for our editorial committee,” she wrote, “I want you to understand that I think this book can be an important one, and I hope most sincerely that you will consider revising and submitting the manuscript for us.” At the end of her email, she said, “I should like to tell you that I am wary of inviting resubmission of manuscripts, and I never do it unless I’m convinced that the possibility of successful revision is actually there. I am anxious to hear your thoughts on the revisions you plan to undertake, so please feel free to drop me a line when you have a moment.”
I responded via email that same day: “Thanks for sending along the reviews. I greatly appreciate the feedback, and I will get started on the revisions right away. It is difficult to give you an estimate of the time it will take me to provide a revised manuscript until I delve into the literature, but I will provide you with an update when I have a better sense of the timing.”
During the next month, I spent every waking hour of my free time revising the manuscript, sometimes line by line. If a fact was inaccurate, I tried to correct it. If a sentence was unclear, I tried to clarify it. If a modifier was dangling, I tried to undangle it.
On August 24, 2010, I resubmitted a significantly improved manuscript to my editor.
And then I waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, on December 6, 2010, I penned a short e-mail to my editor: “As I start winding up my schedule for the year, I wanted to touch base with you to see where we are on this manuscript. Is the plan still to try for publication in 2011?”
Three days later, she responded. She had relied on two new reviewers for a fresh critique. “I am afraid it is bad news -- neither reader feels there is an essential need for a book such as this,” she told me. “Both agree it is well-written, and narrates the story nicely from the perspective of leading white Republicans. The main drawback in both readers’ minds is that the sources you use are still old-fashioned, the interpretations are not new, nor do they reflect the newer trends in Civil War/Reconstruction history. I am sorry but I cannot proceed any further with this book.”
She rendered her final verdict without sugarcoating the message: “Pursuant to clauses 5 and 18 of the Agreement dated May 8, 2008, I am terminating the Agreement. I wish you luck in finding a suitable publisher of this work. I am sorry it will not be us.”
I had invested more than four years in researching, writing, and polishing the manuscript. I had written and then completely revised what I thought was the best work I had ever produced. It was a labor of love. Yet, after all the time and emotional energy expended, I had no publisher. The Christmas season was approaching, and I felt like an abject failure.
In a future posting, I will discuss how I absorbed this body blow, revised the manuscript yet again, and searched for a new publisher in a new year.