No research method will ever replace tracking down primary sources and original material for determining accuracy and finding surprises that would otherwise have remained undiscovered or overlooked. Happy, sad, or intellectually satisfying, these surprises are all wonderful in their way, and they give me good stories to tell.
Here's another example. In 2001 I published a biography of A. Philip Randolph, the great labor and civil rights leader. Other biographies of Randolph had been written, for children and adults. The first was Jervis Anderson's 1972 book, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. Randolph was still alive at the time, so Anderson was able to interview him. In one of their talks, Randolph spoke of his childhood in Jacksonville, Florida, and recalled being about ten years old when his father, a minister, was one of several armed guards who stood outside the local jail to protect an African-American prisoner from being lynched. His mother, meanwhile, sat up all night on the porch of the family home with a shotgun on her lap. It's a great story, and every subsequent biography reported this incident as fact, stating that it happened when Randolph was ten. No one checked.
When I searched archival materials for details, however, I discovered that the lynching was averted several years earlier, when Asa Randolph was three, and the story was a little more interesting. The governor of Florida was so fearful of racial violence erupting that he sent militia forces to Jacksonville. The soldiers avoided using their weapons, though, because black and white community leaders, possibly including the Reverend Randolph, came together and persuaded the people to stay calm. My book therefore made a small correction to the historical record, but it was a gratifying one, and one I could not have made if I had relied on people's memories and secondary sources.
Another example concerns E. E. Cummings. In 1917, Cummings was a recent college graduate and working at a boring job in the mail-order room of the publisher P. F. Collier and Son. According to a story that was often told about him, he was at work when he learned that Buffalo Bill Cody, a childhood hero, had died. Cummings then pulled out a sheet of P. F. Collier stationery and began writing his poem "Buffalo Bill's defunct."
Eighty-plus years later, I was at Harvard University, which houses the papers of E. E. Cummings. There are quite a lot of them, because Cummings was someone who saved every scrap of paper associated with his work, even from the years when he was fresh out of school and no one beyond his family and friends had ever heard of him. Paging through the contents of one of the many folders, I happened upon that famous sheet of stationery. I had it photographed and was able to publish the page for the first time in my book, giving my readers visual evidence of the way Cummings worked.
And then, one day, I was in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room of the Library of Congress, looking for a picture showing some of the damage caused in Paris by World War I air raids. I tracked down a photo album filled with images of German soldiers in France and the results of their bombing and shelling. The album was German and well preserved, and the photographs were sharp and interesting, but none quite suited my purpose. Then I found, tucked in the back, a letter from the American judge who had donated this album to the library, explaining that it had been confiscated at the end of World War II, and that it came from the personal library of Adolf Hitler.
I gasped and pulled back my hands. There may be a thrill in holding a page on which Cummings once wrote, or a poignancy in reliving a mother's heartbreak, but a connection with Hitler was one I could have done without!