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Archives Morality Tale

January 6, 2014

I’m writing an article on the Catholic conversion of Mortimer J. Adler. As of this morning I’m down to the final ten percent of the piece (I am limited to 10,000 words).

It’s turning out, here in the final stages of writing, that the most important piece of my puzzle of a story is a fall 1936 letter written by Adler to Harold Wechsler. Adler’s University of Chicago appointment was tri-partite (law, psychology, philosophy), so some of his work brought him into contact with law professors like Wechsler, who was at Columbia University. But this letter ranged far beyond legal research matters. In it Adler laid out the larger context of his potential conversion (as he saw it), his reasons for converting, his desire to convert, and the obstacles to conversion. It’s a proverbial gold mine.

In the context of research, the most fascinating thing about the letter—which I found during 2003-05 period of archival work at the University of Chicago—is that Wechsler is not mentioned a single time in either of Adler’s autobiographies (i.e. Philosopher at Large, 1977, or A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror, 1992). Since Adler converted to Catholicism in 1999, I wouldn’t expect him to see, retrospectively, this particular 1936 letter as important. Rather, the letter displays a depth of knowledge Wechsler has about Adler, as evident in the highly personal confessions in this letter. Indeed the letter rivals a few I’ve seen from Adler to his best friend, Robert Hutchins, in terms of Adler pouring out his mind. In relation to my project, I think the letter both explains why Adler didn’t convert in the 1930s and why he did the deed in 1999. It’s an amazing find.

The moral of the story is this: No matter how much you think you know about a person, through their published works of memoir or autobiography (in this case two!) and otherwise, the archives will still surprise you. Not only does Wechsler’s name not come up in Adler’s autobiographies, but his name is also rare within even Adler’s archived correspondence (housed at U of C, but also Syracuse University, University of Texas, and some at the University of Nebraska). Anyway, always go to the archives. If you don’t, you’re shorting yourself and your subject.

I’m so happy that I spent so much time at the U of C’s Regenstein. And I’m very happy now, in retrospect, about the money I spent copying letters, lectures, and other documents. The coin lost was painful at the time, as my spouse will attest, but it’s been very useful as my scholarship has progressed. That money spent ten years ago, and the findings it obtained for me, are still bearing fruit even after publication of The Book. – TL


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