The Unreliability of Primary Sources
Parsing out what you know and what you don’t know from archival material is an intrinsic part of research. Archives and other primary sources are generally considered more reliable than secondary sources, such as art criticism, theoretical studies, and historical texts, because they are first-hand accounts. Although this may be true in general, researching my book on art critic, curator, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project director Holger Cahill has made me reexamine my confidence in primary documents, which are susceptible to the distortions of memory and only as reliable as their narrator.
A lively, engaging, but untrustworthy narrator, Cahill’s wide-reaching contributions to American art include the early promotion of American folk art (he helped to assemble Abby Rockefeller’s collection at Colonial Williamsburg), the expansion of the Newark Museum’s collection of American art, and curatorial projects for the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1930s. In his most well-known role as director of the Federal Art Project he nurtured thousands of artists through the Depression, facilitated the construction of thousands of murals and public art works, and engaged the populace with American art on an unprecedented scale.
All these achievements were facilitated by personal myth-making. An Icelandic immigrant, Cahill grew up in poverty in North Dakota. After becoming estranged from his family, he arrived in New York as a hobo boxcar rider with little formal education and no experience in the art world. Settling in Greenwich Village, he developed relationships with artist John Sloan and art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert that helped propel his career. He also reinvented himself, changing his given name, Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson, altering his birthdate to make himself six years younger, and claiming he was born in St. Paul Minnesota rather than in Skógarströnd Iceland.
Cahill’s proclivity for refashioning his biography calls into question the accuracy of the 500-page oral history interview he gave to Columbia University in 1957 as well as his letters and personal statements preserved at the Archives of American Art and the New York Public Library. The oral history interview, because of its narrative format, seems particularly susceptible to storytelling and misremembrances. Cahill begins the interview with the statement, “I first saw the world on the banks of the Mississippi, but I don’t remember it at all. That is the Mississippi River [. . .]The world that I first got acquainted with was the flatlands of eastern Dakota.” This misleading comment gives the impression Cahill was born somewhere in the Midwest. An even more direct misrepresentation appears in Cahill’s correspondence. In a letter to the New Deal Administration, written shortly after his nomination for the directorship of the Federal Art Project, Cahill explained that although he did not have a U.S. passport, “I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. At any rate so I have always believed.” Letters are not necessarily more protected from fabrications than oral history.
Although it is a problematic document, I do not want to discount the oral history interview and the wealth of material it provides. However, trying to corroborate information that could be open to interpretation can be tricky. It can be difficult to confirm all the specifics of even a single memory.
One such instance is Cahill’s response to an exposé published in Life magazine on April 17, 1944, which concerned the disposal of artworks after the Federal Art Project disbanded. Entitled “End of WPA Art: Canvases which Cost Government 35 million dollars are Sold for Junk,” the photo essay documents the selling of paintings for as little as three dollars in a Lower East Side junk shop. Regardless of any missteps that he had made in liquidating the art programs, Cahill was furious this article had been printed and would mar the achievements of Federal Art Project and the artists. He recalls he met the art critic for Life at the Lafayette Hotel and got into a “terrible row with her.” She was a “woman who had tried to get a job on the Project, but she didn’t make the grade and then she got a job at Life.” Then Cahill orchestrated a counter article by contacting the editor of the daily newspaper P.M. The paper sent him a young Lillian Ross (this was before she joined the New Yorker) to report his side of the story.
The P.M. story “Life delivers a very low punch” was published on April 30, 1944, so
the general outline of Cahill’s account checks out. Corroborating other details is a bit more challenging. Who was the art critic for Life and did Cahill really confront her? What are the chances Lillian Ross might remember interviewing Cahill for this article and could provide another perspective? Is this event significant enough to my project to pursue?
Although these are standard research questions, Cahill and other unreliable narrators heighten our awareness of the limitations of the archival record and force us to acknowledge the boundaries of what we can know. An archive, after all, is a human document shaped by the doubts, egotism, mistakes, challenges, passions, and personality of its author. Cahill’s life retained an aura of mystery even to those who knew him best.
JILLIAN RUSSO is curator at the Art Students League of New York.