Archive for the ‘Assignments’ Category

The Case of the Missing Memoirs

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Because we’ll be reading the history of the “Hitler Diaries” for next week, I thought I would tell you a story I know well of a missing autobiography/memoir that I tried to track down once upon a time.

When I was an MA student back in the 1980s I wrote my thesis on the diplomatic mission of an American named Ambrose Dudley Mann to Hungary in 1848. When the Civil War began, Mann (a Virginian) chose the Confederacy and became a Confederate diplomat in Europe. After the war he was an “irreconcilable” who refused to return to the United States, lived out his life in Paris, and died there. His obituary in various American newspapers said he was preparing his memoirs for publication at the time of his death. I couldn’t find his memoirs in print [See Google Books for works by him], so at first I assumed they didn’t exist.

Then I found an obituary for his son, who was a judge in Chicago. His son’s obituary said that just prior to Judge Mann’s death, he had been to Paris, where he had helped his father complete the editing of the memoirs, the manuscripts of which he had brought back with him to Chicago.

Ah ha! They do exist. But where?

Using the tricks of the geneaologist, I looked up Judge Mann’s will in the Cook County (Chicago) Courthouse. The will said that all of Judge Mann’s worldly effects had been bequeathed to his wife Minerva Meyers Mann. I then asked for a copy of her will, only to find out that her will had been destroyed in a fire at the Courthouse annex where it was stored.

A dead end.

That was in 1988 that I ran into the dead end. Since that time, the Internet has appeared and I’ve tried various tricks to see if I can unearth the missing memoirs. I’ve posted to geneaological society websites, I’ve written to people who count old Ambrose in their family trees. About once a year I do a Google search on him just in case someone has come up with something.

I’m just positive that the missing memoirs are sitting in a trunk in someone’s attic somewhere just waiting for me (or you) to find them. Whoever does find them will have an instant book contract, if only because any book about the Civil War finds a contract.

My experiences with this particular document helps me sympathize with those trying to authenticate the Hitler Diaries. Given all the chaos at the end of the war in Europe, it’s quite possible that a set of diaries, even Hitler’s, were lost, only to be found at some later date.

Rocket Car

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Why the story works:

On the first page he admits that it sounds a little off the wall and crazy. “I’m sure this sounds pretty ridiculous” He’s telling the reader that the story sounds absurd but bare with him and he will explain how everything flows together.

He admits that he’s not a rocket scientist, car expert or has must interest in urban legends. He’s careful on how he writes the story and how he builds the story up gradually. He talks about being a biology teacher, how he found the story on the internet and why he decided to write his version.

To make his story sound more believable he finds flaws in the Darwin’s version. He points the flaws out in his story about how Darwin’s version wouldn’t work or just plain stupid to even attempt “What strikes me as incredible silly about the Darwin Award version of the story is that the pilot chose to test his vehicle on a road with a c curve in it”.

The background information was very thorough. He’s extremely careful to include everything (plus more) to make the story plausible. He talks about his father owning a scrap yard and how they obtained their materials “we lived near a major US Army storage facility, a lot of the scrap my father bought and sold came from government auctions . . . Of course I’m telling you this because it’s how I managed to get hold of the JATO bottle we used for our rocket car” (how convenient). He also went in great depths about his friends that helped him build the rocket car and why he decided to choose them. “Jimmy and I met in the third grade and were best friends for most of our growing up . . . Jimmy went to college to study ‘mechanical engineering’”.

Even though he gave information on how everything came together – on choosing his friends, how they put the rocket car together, and where they did the test run I feel he went too far in depth with the information. It made me feel that he thought too long and hard on the process of how to make the story sound believable. Listing details was a great idea but he over did it on the number of details he used. The story was extremely drawn out.

He was also vague in certain parts of the story which made the reader doubt the creditability. “I won’t specify except to say it was somewhere in the desert”. Red flag goes up. There’s no way to prove that this story was true or not.

The critical elements in the story that convinced me that it was made up were the amount of details he added to the story. He wanted the story to sound believable and in order to do that he thought he had to add a step-by-step description of how he came about to build the rocket car and how they pulled it off. There’s a fine line of how much detail one should add to a story to make it sound plausible. The story was drawn out and I admit it made me lose interest half way through. Another critical element was the lack of evidence the story had. There was no way of finding out if this really took place or not, especially since he just said it happened in the desert somewhere. What we can learn from this is to make a story believable it does not need to be drawn out nor does it need an excessive amount of detail.

Assignment for Friday

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

For Friday’s class, I want you to write a brief analysis of the Rocket Car story from Wired. As yourself (a) why does this story work, (b) why doesn’t it work, (c) what are the critical elements in convincing you that it is the true story or a made up one, and finally (d) what we as a class should learn from this story. Post your analysis in the blog before class on Friday so everyone else will have a chance to read and think about what you had to say before class.