• The revelatory thing about Debs that has been percolating in my mind lately is this: he celebrated his 40th birthday in November 1895 sitting in Woodstock jail. Many people tend to think of Debs before Woodstock as something of a caterpillar, Woodstock as the chrysalis, and Debs after Woodstock as a butterfly. Even though his pre-Socialist material will be one volume in four, it’s important to remember that his life was more than half-way done by the time he got out of the pokey for the first time. He was not a youngster trying to figure out where he was going, but a grown man trying to figure out how to get there.
Throughout his entire life Debs shifted gears. He was not an opportunist, there was a consistency to his line of thought, but neither was he was a stable and predictable thinker in the way that Marx or Lenin or Stalin or Trotsky or Luxemburg or Berger or DeLeon or Hillquit or Galbraith or Harrington were. This doesn’t make him any less important, only more erratic — and in some ways more interesting.
During his life Debs made a number of important leaps in orientation and emphasis. He began as a young kid on the make trying to find a career path, before going on to become a paternalistic and conservative magazine editor, a multi-brotherhood federationist, an industrial union activist trying to figure out the best way to herd cats (which was what the task of getting the disparate railway workers to unite was like). After that he became a cooperative commonwealth colony buff, a political action socialist, an IWW founder, a flamethrowing radical publicist, a political prisoner, a proto-communist, and ultimately, a rather tired and tame social democrat. Something for every factionalist to love and hate, in the final analysis.
• One might wonder how I produce editable Debs text for the press, which is extracted from hardcopy physical publications like leaflets and pamphlets, from digital scans, and from microfilm. There’s actually not one answer to that question, but two. Good old-fashioned typing is one means of getting things done. I’ve been typing documents ever since I launched my Early American Marxism website in 2004. That site I’ve always conceived as my reading notes in very, very long form for my magnum opus — Father Time permitting — a multivolume history of American radicalism from the preparedness hysteria of 1915-1916 to the collapse of the Farmer-Labor Party movement and “bolshevization” of the Communist Party in 1924-25. So type, type, type, type, type has been part of my life for a long time — with me moving my main effort from the website to Wikipedia from 2009. I probably have typed something like 1.5 million to 2 million words for my website, believe it or not.
The other means of creation of editable documents, which I became familiar with queuing documents up for my coeditor on my previous book project, is through optical character recognition (OCR). Basically one must start with a scan of a document and then run that through computer software, which generates a string of editable text that must be painstakingly worked over to eliminate bad line breaks, spacing errors, and misread characters. It is a quicker process once the scanned material exists, probably 3 or 4 times as fast as typing, but much more boring — and one must start from a good, clean, straight scan, which is impossible to generate for some things. The long graphic to the right is what one of my cleaned-and-linearized pre-OCR files looks like — the strip I uploaded was actually twice that long.
One thing that I like about typing is that I really seem to learn the material when I have to read it and put it through my fingers. With OCR, it is more mechanical, repetitiously eliminating 1,000 bad line breaks, fixing 200 hyphenated words, cleaning up 500 typos and squirrelly spacing errors, and so forth. The content being fixed could be a Debs article or an exposition on canning dill pickles — at the end of the hour you wouldn’t really know or care which it was, nor would you either know much about either dill pickles or Debs, whichever it was that you were buffing up.
On the current project I find myself typing about 70% of the material, vs. 30% OCR. I am finding OCR works very well for the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine material and a couple pamphlets — material which has already been digitized by Google for their Google Books project or elsewhere. This stuff just needs a little bit of Photoshop finessing (and not much time) to make it straight, clean, and linear. Then I use Archive.org’s OCR software instead of a copy of the software on my own laptop — they have an option for running up “test files” that automatically vanish after 30 days that makes this possible without impacting their article database.
All the microfilm material is hand-typed. I find that I can type up something like 10,000 words a day if I have long pieces to work and keep right after it. All in all, I could probably jam out a 650 page documents book every three months if I had to — which I don’t.
• The manuscript deadline for Railway Populist is October 15. The word budget is 275,000 words for that tome, from which must be deducted about 10,000 words for an extensive introduction and another 5,000 for supplemental biographies and such. That means there is a hard cap of 260,000 words for the body of the book. As of this writing late in the evening of Tuesday, March 7, my database indicates that I have 259,895 words typed up and ready to roll for the 1877-1896 period. In other words, if David and I kept every word typed up so far, we’d be already completely done with the Debs content proper.
However, we are not finished assembling the key material for publication — not even close! Things actually remain in a fairly early “discovery” stage. My hope and expectation is to ultimately produce something like 500,000 words of editable text for the volume 1 period, which David and I can then sift down to the most important 260,000 words. We’ll figure out what to do with the material which doesn’t make the cut — maybe we can churn out a supplemental ebook or something through Marxists Internet Archive.
I’m just about ready to battle a published 12,000 (!!!) word speech to victorious conclusion, which will put me over the top in the word count. Hurrah for hitting the landmark.