September 06, 2005

15-year project just completed Collection offers view of John Dewey's life, work

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE IL, -- 15-year project just completed at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Center for Dewey Studies has produced a uniquely candid glimpse into the life and work of one of America's most influential philosophers and educators.

SIUC editors have assembled and published in electronic form transcriptions of some 20,000 letters written by, to or about John Dewey, as well as mementoes, such as telegrams and menus, that detail the people, places and events relevant to his long career.

"It's a documentary history that offers a much more intimate look than other published records," said Larry A. Hickman, director of the center since 1993.

"To the best of my knowledge, an electronic edition of this magnitude has never been completed before. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which has underwritten much of the work with grants totaling nearly $2 million, tells us that our project was cited as a model for other editions."

Dewey often did not keep copies of his own letters — "The correspondence would be better if he had been a little more attentive to this matter," Hickman said.

"As a result, there's a lot of family correspondence of an intimate nature in which they're saying things they probably wouldn't have said in public," Hickman noted.

Dewey's daughter Evelyn, for example, met the famed early childhood education expert Maria Montessori during a visit to Italy and described her financial backer as a "Machiavelli in petticoats and probably the cause of many of Montessori's quarrels." Dewey himself once wrote of a pair of philosophers whom he held in low esteem that their working partnership went afoul "of the biblical injunction against yoking an ox and an ass."

Dewey's pen pals included such notables as Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, scientist Albert Einstein, U.S. President Herbert Hoover, poet T.S. Elliot, African-American activist W.E. B. DuBois and social reformer Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's Hull House, which brought day care, kindergarten, a library, art gallery, employment bureau and other such services to immigrants living on the city's near west side.

"At one point, the correspondence shows that Dewey considered moving his family near Hull House as a matter of solidarity, but he decided he couldn't really do so because the commute on his bicycle to the University of Chicago, where he worked, would take over two hours a day, and in the winter he would have to spend three hours a day on the cable car," Hickman said.

Hickman stressed that all text appearing in the correspondence collection is "verbatim and literatim," meaning the editors keyed in each item exactly as written.

"We have not cleaned up his overstrikes, we have preserved his misspellings, where there's a caret over or under the line, that's there, too," Hickman said.

"It's as if the scholar were sitting with the original document. Everything but the physical paper is there. This will be the standard research edition of Dewey's correspondence for centuries. This job won't be done again because it won't have to be done."

As they worked with the letters and mementoes, the editors also added notes that identify the people, places and events mentioned there, and they constructed an extensive chronology of Dewey's life and work.

"This delayed the publication of the correspondence by many months because the original plan didn't include those identifications," Hickman said.

"But the NEH agreed that the edition would be much more valuable to the scholarly community if they were included."

The SIUC editors have divided the correspondence into three electronic volumes, available individually or as a set at from InteLex Corp., a Charlottesville, Va., company that sells humanities databases.

The first volume, which covers the years 1871 through 1918, includes material on Dewey's graduate school education and early teaching career, his marriage and family, his years at the University of Chicago and the founding of the Dewey School, his time at Columbia University, and his political activities during World War I.

The second, from 1919 through 1939, records Dewey's visits and lectures abroad, the death of his wife Alice, his two retirements from Columbia and his activism during the Great Depression.

The last, chronicling the years from 1940 to Dewey's death in 1952 (and the correspondence that followed it), includes writings on academic freedom and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Dewey's second marriage and his 90th birthday.

Scholars should find the ability to create "shadow files" of the material particularly useful.

"That's a personalized file that allows you to have an ‘overlay' on a read-only document," Hickman said.

"You can use highlighters, put sticky notes on there — and you can search those sticky notes. You can create links, you can add bookmarks — there are a lot of things you can do with your own shadow file."

Hickman said staff members at the center were now preparing a proposal for funding to edit a three- or four-volume, "best of the best," printed edition of the correspondence in "clear text" — stripped of the strikeovers and misspellings preserved in the electronic edition.

"Books are still important," Hickman said.

"People use them in ways they don't use electronic editions. You can even read them in the bathtub. You wouldn't want to have your computer perched there."

They also have a supplemental electronic tome in the works.

"We keep finding new letters," Hickman said with a grin.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.