Jim Murphy was gracious enough to come down to Rutgers with me yesterday and to visit with two of my classes: Nonfiction, and YA Materials. In both classes we looked closely at his classic An American Plague and he shared some of the inside stories of how he went about researching all aspects of it. It turned out a librarian he met in Philadelphia was an expert on the history of the African American community in Philadelphia, and showed him many magnificent primary sources. Jim got the idea for those documents which face the opening of each chapter — newspaper pages from 1793, city directories where you just happen to notice George Washington, President of the United States, and his local address — as he explored another cache of documents he found in Philadelphia. He then had to convince his editor to use the documents by actually mocking up the page. As he spoke, I realized that what he does, and many of us do, is really not writing, rather it is an art form. We are shaping a story in every sense — visually, textually, narratively — as we research it. How did we learn to do that? Where did that concept of nonfiction bookmaking come from?
Jim started out working for another well-known author of nonfiction for younger readers, James Cross Giblin. Both Jims worked with a great editor of nonfiction, Dorothy Briley. As it happens, my first job in children’s publishing was editing the Land and People series at Harper — a series Dorothy had once edited, and, indeed, she was my first editor. Authors I worked with, such as Polly Brooks, distinctly recalled creating their nonfiction books by laying out their archival images on tables and designing the books with their editors. In other words, we have been trained in an artisanal tradition — master craftspeople of one generation have literally shown us how it can be done (not how to do it, since that changes with each book). I suspect that Leonard Marcus covers this somewhere in Minders of the Makebelieve and if he doesn’t, he should. Because I started out in the late 80s and heard stories that link this chain at least back to the 60s, with traces hinting back to the 40s. That is a lineage of editing, bookmaking, and devotion to the art of nonfiction that really shaped what is possible today, in another century.
I feel like I am trying to piece together the lineage of a fading tradition of Living Masters who preserve and practice a unique style of pottery; I want to capture it and value it before the memory is lost.