Thursday, April 30, 2009
Today, Thursday, April 30, I'll be on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC radio at 12:40 PM. Then at 7:00 PM I'll be in conversation with novelist Kevin Baker at the New York Public Library, 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. There's full details at my main website. Note that this is a ticketed event, with a $15 charge.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Tonight, Wednesday, April 29, at 7:30 PM, I'll be taking part in the Cambridge Forum, at the 1st Unitarian-Universalist Church on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.
This event will be available as a podcast, and will be broadcast by some NPR stations, including San Francisco's own KQED.
And it's free.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
I apologize for turning this blog into another tedious self-promotion platform. I'm on the road, so I'm not up for much serious pontificating about biography-writing. But also, well, I'm human, and after having this book absorb almost seven years of my life, it's a little overwhelming to see the daily accretion of reviews. It's a good overwhelming.
The latest is by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, Wednesday, April 29. He says, "This is a mighty—and mighty confident—work, one that moves with force and conviction and imperious wit."
I've got a lot to be grateful for in this review (reviews can make an author feel like his life is in the hands of strangers who do not have his best interests at heart), but I'm particularly gratified by the way it deals with the length of the book—because, to be honest, it's anything but short:
"There are moments in any biography of this size when your eyes are going to glaze over; I certainly did not wish The First Tycoon were longer. But I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be."
I can only hope other readers have the same reaction.
Monday, April 27, 2009
The Bloomberg news service weighs in with a review of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
"[An] arresting saga," in the words of James Pressley, the reviewer. "The result resembles a five-course meal at a three-star restaurant: Though rich and pleasurable, it's not designed for rapid digestion."
Hell, I can sure live with that. This is one piece of writing that did not start out on Twitter.
I'm in Washington, D.C., as part of my tour. On Tuesday night, 7:00 PM, I'm speaking at Politics & Prose, one of the nation's great independent bookstores. And it's free. I'll keep my remarks brief, and will take questions afterward.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Three new reviews have been published of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
One is in the current issue of Newsweek.
Another is in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.
And a third is in the Boston Globe.
Sorry for the promotion-oriented posts. I am on the road to talk about the book. Check my tour schedule at:
Friday, April 24, 2009
I'm on the road to promote The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and I've been lucky enough to be invited to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a really wonderful event that undermines the stereotype of Los Angeles as an unliterary place, to say the least.
I'll be appearing on a panel on the "evaporating economy" at 2:00 PM on Saturday. Then I head for points east.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Today, April 21, is the official publication date for my new book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
I've read it, and it's not bad. You can find it at your local independent bookstore with one of the links in the left-hand column on this page, or find it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And don't forget Borders, a big chain bookstore that's in serious trouble these days.
I've got nothing against Amazon—I'll be grateful for every purchase made, wherever made. But I value bookstores, especially independent bookstores. They're important to our culture, in a way that the Internet can't quite duplicate. I hope you'll consider buying my book at your nearest independent bookstore. If you go in to look for The First Tycoon, you'll get a chance to pick it up, thumb through it, glance at the photo inserts, and understand what you're buying a little better. And you just might see something else you'll like, too.
Hope to see you over the next month while I'm on the road, promoting the book.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
In my posts about the art of writing biography, I've been a bit self-congratulatory, I fear, touting the ways in which I have (supposedly) solved the various problems I've discussed. Let me try to redress the balance a bit, and stress the importance of being edited.
Probably most editors don't do much editing these days. Their primary responsibility in most publishing houses is financial: choosing where to invest the company's money. When the manuscript comes in from the author, it often goes straight to copy editing, a vital though largely technical process of correcting errors. But real editing is more involved than that.
Speaking for myself, I have to say that a good editor is essential to making a good book. I count myself lucky, because I've got one of the best editors in the business, Jonathan Segal of Alfred A. Knopf. Check the acknowledgments for Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and you'll get an idea of how active a role he plays, and how well he does it. A good editor can't turn tin into gold, of course, but he can at least put a nice shine on it, making the most out of a manuscript.
But the most important part played by an editor is not in line editing—marking up a manuscript with a blue pencil. In my opinion, an editor is most vital in shaping and giving focus to a project. I felt kind of humiliated when I sent the first chapters of my forthcoming book to my editor, because they came back with the note that they were nowhere close to what he thought I was capable of. And he was right. Of course, readers and critics will decide if the final book is good or not; but being sent back to the drawing board certainly made it far better than it would have been.
My editor didn't tell me what to write, or how to think about the project, but he identified where I wasn't thinking clearly enough. Something was wrong, or missing. I read more, thought more, and began to get a handle on what was really going on in Vanderbilt's life, and how it connected to the main currents of the American economy. The process transformed my book.
Later, when he received the full manuscript, he identified areas where I needed to drastically cut the text. This was before the line-editing stage, so his criticism was general. Again, it forced me to engage in some critical thinking, to ask myself which parts of the narrative were essential, which parts advanced both the story and the reader's understanding of what was important about Vanderbilt's life.
This is not to say that I didn't benefit from good line editing, too. My point is, even good writers—and I—need someone to look at our projects with an independent perspective. The editor may not have the answers, but hopefully can point you to where you need to focus your attention.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Enough self-congratulation: back to questions of biography-writing.
There's a pitfall that's very, very hard to avoid in writing about the past: the pit of anachronisms.
It's more a minefield than a pitfall, because wherever you step, you can blow up your narrative. Writing in an overly modern style, using contemporary (for the writer, not the subject) images and metaphors, etc., etc. Not that I think we should write in a historic, outdated style, but a book about the nineteenth century should not read like a text message or Twitter post.
But there's one particular kind of anachronism that concerns me here. It's a matter of judgment—that is, judging our subjects. The temptation to cast them as heroes or villains is often overwhelming, but it inevitably colors our portrait in strange ways—much like the engraving of Grand Central Depot above.
Let me be specific. The subject of my new book, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was the first "robber baron" in American history—in fact, the metaphor was invented specifically for him by the New York Times in 1859. Today robber barons are the subject of a lot of modern-minded debate. Conservatives like to cast them as captains of industry who demonstrate the glories of the free market; liberals castigate them as corrupt villains who punished the poor and distorted democracy.
When I was writing The First Tycoon, I felt the push and pull of these two approaches. Sometimes I was appalled at economic practices in the nineteenth century; sometimes I felt real admiration for Vanderbilt. But I resolved this internal conflict by trying to understand him in the full context of the times. More than that, I tried to avoid imparting any criticism of my own, but to focus entirely on what Americans in his own time had to say about him.
Vanderbilt was (and is) controversial. But we don't learn much by slathering him in white or black paint. It's much more interesting, and revealing, to see how his contemporaries debated him. Some of that criticism was unfounded when it came to the facts, as I often point out. But he became the spark for arguments about laissez-faire, government regulation, equality, opportunity, corruption, and the growing imbalance of wealth and power in American society.
I didn't endorse or condemn the criticism of him, but I did explore it, to show how he played a part in the making of American economic and political culture. I tried to remind myself often that I was not writing a book about what I think of my own times, but I was trying to honestly depict his life and the world he inhabited.
It will be interesting to see if and how my book is greeted by media with explicit political leanings—say, the Weekly Standard on the right and The Nation on the left. If both sides think that my book strengthens their own views, it might actually be a sign that I struck the right balance.
Friday, April 17, 2009
The Economist this week reviews my new book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The review's pretty extensive, and (I'm happy to say) quite positive.
So let me lamely justify a self-promoting post about a review of my book in this blog about biography-writing. (Do I really need to justify it? Well, here goes.)
The Economist thinks that I struck the right balance between storytelling and context—between narrative and analysis. Here's what it has to say:
"It is the description of Vanderbilt’s legacy to American capitalism, rather than his wealth, that makes T.J. Stiles’s long but superbly written and researched book worthy of its subject. Mr Stiles made his name with a biography of the Confederate train robber, Jesse James. With Vanderbilt, a New York robber baron on the other side of the tracks, he tackles the economic divisions in America as well as the social ones. . . .
"If this makes for good economic and social history, what brings life to the personal narrative is his relationship with the scheming gang of steamboat and railway owners who are at times Vanderbilt’s partners, at times his enemies. When they trick him, as they often try, he is relentless—and ruthless—in getting revenge."
What more could a biographer ask for in a review? As I've written before, the biographer plays three roles: researcher, historian, and writer. The researcher provides depth, the historian breadth, the writer life. I will be honest: It's nice to have The Economist identify all three areas as strengths of the book.
I liked (and subscribed to) The Economist before this review. And I have to agree: The First Tycoon is long, with the main text running to 571 pages. In the days of heroic publishing, I might have made it a big longer and published it in three volumes, breaking each part into its own book. But a man who was at the center of national events for six decades, who has never had a full biography before, surely deserves extensive treatment. And I did my best to make each chapter and part satisfying, so it doesn't have to be read in just a few sittings.
But the next book will be a lot shorter.
Monday, April 13, 2009
The prisoner walks to the center of the city plaza. The crowd watches. The soldiers stand at attention, then raise their rifles. They aim. . . .
Feel any dramatic tension yet? Maybe I'm being a bit too obvious with this example (the public execution of Conservative Nicaraguan General Ponciano Corral by filibuster William Walker, shown in the illustration). It's a standard thriller technique to draw out the approach of an impending violent event, focusing on little details of the scene. But it usually works.
On reviewing my posts, I realized that I was being a bit disingenuous in my last, by saying that I am too abashed to offer much advice on writing well. Seems like I've done a lot of it. So here are a few more reflections on the same subject, focusing on a basic but important technique: the set-up.
When I was a young copywriter in publishing, reading manuscripts and writing catalog and jacket-flap copy, I had a very wise boss who had an MFA in creative writing from Cornell. He told me that one definition of plot is the creation of expectations, followed by their fulfillment. The fulfillment can take unexpected form, but still follows logically from the sense of anticipation created by the writer. Fundamentally, the reader should want to know what happens next—should always have a reason for turning the page.
For the biographer, this can be a challenge. Biography is nonfiction; it is tethered to evidence, not invention. So infusing the writing with expectations is a matter of how the evidence is presented, so to speak.
In some cases, this is done by establishing conflict. In The First Tycoon, I start Part 2 (which covers Cornelius Vanderbilt's career in oceanic steamship lines) by laying out the clear opposition between his personality and that of Joseph L. White, a partner who soon turns against him, and plagues him until nearly the last page of Part 2. As soon as White shows up, I make it clear, in so many words, that we can expect trouble from him.
In other cases, the set-up is a matter of switching perspective—in a sense, flashing from the person crossing the tracks to the approaching runaway locomotive. I use the scene illustrated above this way, also in Part 2. I write of how Vanderbilt laid plans to resume control of a company that carried passengers across Nicaragua, then switch to the story of William Walker's conquest of that country, setting up a conflict between the two men. We see that Vanderbilt was walking into a trap.
But biography is usually more than storytelling. It's also a form of history, and should offer historical interpretation and context. Handled poorly, it bogs the reader down. Handled well, it makes the succession of events more interesting, by laying out the stakes. When I reached the point in my narrative where Vanderbilt switched from steamships to railroads, I paused and flashed ahead to describe his ultimate impact as a railway tycoon. This was a kind of foreshadowing (another fundamental way of creation anticipation) that was both narrative and interpretive. It was a giant sign to the reader, saying, "Now begins something really important, both in Vanderbilt's life and American history. Pay attention."
If I did it well, then it made the early stages of his railroad career more interesting, and also fortified the reader with the patience to get through some of the less dramatic passages on the way to the big finish.
Of course, creating a sense of drama in the life of Commodore Vanderbilt wasn't the hardest task I've ever had as a writer. A larger-than-life figure with outsized opponents, who waged business conflicts on a global scale, he arrived with plenty of excitement already in the package. I hope I translated it onto the page successfully.
Friday, April 10, 2009
As I've written before (and elsewhere), the biographer plays three roles: researcher, historian, and writer. Each is essential to a book if it is to both have literary merit and contribute to our knowledge. To put it briefly, the researcher provides depth, the historian breadth, and the writer life.
I've written here about how to tackle problems involving research and historical interpretation, but not so much about good writing. To be honest, I feel like it's dangerously self-important to take it upon myself to lecture the world about what makes for good writing. The other aspects of the biographer's job strike me as more technical; it's a little less vain, I think, to offer suggestions there. There are technical aspects to fine writing, too, but it's impossible to escape the need for an intuitive feel that emerges from a combination of practice and, well, gift. Louis Menand wrote wonderfully about this in a 2004 review for The New Yorker.
So let me retreat to a more technical side of writing: being vivid. It is high art indeed to bring the reader into a fully realized time and place. As Conrad wrote about writing, "Above all, to make you see."
Well, that's all well and good for the novelist. What about the nonfiction writer? The creation of a vivid setting can involve walking a fine line between an acceptable level of imagination and an unacceptable degree of invention. Here is where the writer in a biographer owes a debt to the researcher. The more details you mine from your sources, the more color you can add.
For example: In the second chapter of The First Tycoon, I describe Cornelius Vanderbilt's rescue of a disabled steamboat amid a storm in New York harbor. I include a number of details that were apparent, not explicit, in the reporting on the incident. From descriptions of the direction of the storm and Vanderbilt's starting point, I write that he ran before the wind when he sailed to link up with the stricken boat. From descriptions of the waves crashing knee-high over the deck, I write of the passengers wading through water that swept up to their knees. Such descriptions were as far out on a limb as I was willing to go, but they were a logical correlation of details in printed reports. (More than logical: necessary.)
Imagination comes into play not through inventing details, but through a visual sense: creatively thinking of what the scene must have been like, what would have struck the eyes of the participants, and seeking out and including information that captures that picture.
But sometimes writers simply veer off the cliff in pursuit of vividness, and depart the confines of nonfiction. I've written before about my disapproval of a recent book that appears to include entire scenes that have been concocted, with nothing to tell the reader that they have been entirely imagined. That goes beyond our goal—to create a sense of being there—into destroying the meaning of "there," at least as it applies to nonfiction.
Oh, about the photo at the top of this post: As the little caption shows, it's from the deck of the C.S.S. Alabama, a famous Confederate cruiser that plagued Vanderbilt during the Civil War. I just like the photo. It makes me feel like I'm there.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Readers interested in writing—the craft, as well as the final product—are well advised to read The Biographer's Craft, the monthly newsletter by biographer James McGrath Morris. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a personal stake in promoting it, as he wrote up an interview with me in the current (April) issue.
The question we discussed was, in essence, when and how to pick fights with previous writers in the text of a book. This is a little different from discussions of context, or interpretive elaborations (which I discuss here, in a previous post).
No, this is even trickier. And I say that even though very few writers have tackled dedicated biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the subject of my new book. There haven't even been many writers who have written about the Vanderbilt family—and I have no intention of going after them. Arthur Vanderbilt II gave a blurb for my new book, and Louis Auchincloss (pictured here) is a great writer with whom I have no beef.
More than that, a lot of record-correcting is tedious for the reader. The impulse to engage in it comes naturally when you've immersed yourself in the archives. You can develop a burning outrage at how previous writers have gotten your subject wrong, and the desire to denounce these wrong-headed ideas can be overwhelming.
Usually, though, it is no fun for your audience. If the record needs correcting, most of the time you should leave the argument to your endnotes, and just give the right version in your narrative.
But sometimes you have to pick a fight, right square in the main text. So, how do you know when it's necessary?
As I mentioned in my interview with The Biographer's Craft, my guiding principle is to remember the reader. If you're just settling an intepretive score, forget about it. If you're telling the reader something that needs to be said to explain your subject, or to advance the story, go for it.
This usually centers on issues that have traditionally defined your subject—widely (or long) held notions that are pretty well fixed in the public mind. I offer two examples from The First Tycoon: First, that Vanderbilt methodically sought to monopolize New York's railroads, most famously by trying to buy control of the Erie Railway in the notorious Erie War of 1868. What I found badly undermined that idea. But it has been a fixed point of definition for the Commodore since those events were taking place, so I felt that I had to explicitly say that I was parting from the standard account, and explain why.
A second example is Vanderbilt's relationship with Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin. The standard story is that Vanderbilt took Claflin as a mistress and funded the sisters' purported brokerage house on Wall Street and their radical weekly newspaper. Since Woodhull has received many more biographies than Vanderbilt himself, this idea has grown in the public mind, until it is one of the few things that people know (or think they know) about the Commodore. But when I dug into the archives, I found that all the evidence for an affair with Claflin, or Vanderbilt's support for their business ventures, was flimsy, and largely came from Woodhull and Claflin themselves—who were confidence artists, among other things. The whole thing fell apart. Since it's such an established idea, though, I felt that I had to engage in a pointed critique within the narrative.
Then there's another category: Recent assertions—recent enough that they will be fresh in readers' and critics' minds—that don't hold water. I came across this problem when I confronted Edward Renehan's claims that he had discovered Vanderbilt's doctor's diary, and that it showed that Vanderbilt contracted syphilis, began to go insane in 1868 (as seen in his sponsorship of Claflin and Woodhull), and was used as a puppet by his son William until his death of the disease in 1877.
Renehan's book was not widely reviewed, and this idea did not exactly take hold in the public mind. But it is such a huge claim, and so recent, that I had to address it somehow. The problems with it multiplied as I investigated. Renehan insisted on keeping his sources secret, refusing to say who owned them. The medical literature on syphilis showed that it was impossible for Vanderbilt to have suffered syphilitic dementia. (Since the kind of syphilis that causes dementia attacks the central nervous system, it leads to wild behavioral abberations, progressive paralysis, and finally death within three years of dementia's manifestation—four years at most, and certainly not eight or nine.)
Vanderbilt was a national celebrity, in the public eye on a daily basis in Saratoga, unscheduled interviews with reporters, and his daily races of his fast trotters. Not one of the thousands of observers who saw the Commodore between 1868 and 1877 mentioned anything like dementia, syphilitic or otherwise. If anything, Vanderbilt seemed calmer and more in control of himself in his final decade. Renehan's claims were rather like saying that Lincoln's doctor's diary had come to light, and it showed that Lincoln was four feet tall and spoke only French.
It was an untenable claim based on suspiciously secret sources, but only one reviewer saw how untenable it was. So, as I was revising my manuscript, I wrestled with how to address this question, junking up my narrative with a long critique. Then I read the startling news that Renehan had pleaded guilty to stealing and selling historic letters owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Association, when he was acting director of that organization (and when he was writing his Vanderbilt biography). He was eventually sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, explaining his behavior by saying that he suffered from untreated bipolar disorder.
I have no desire to add to the difficulties that Renehan faces as a result of his misconduct and mental illness. But the news gave me a new perspective on his untenable claims and secret sources. And, by so thoroughly undermining his credibility (in my judgment), it freed me to take the critique out of the main narrative and restrict it to a bibliographical essay.
I never had these problems with Louis Auchincloss.
Monday, April 6, 2009
In the current issue of The Biographer's Craft, there's an interview with me about how to address previous writers within the text of a biography. It's a tricky question. Sometimes it's absolutely essential to step outside a narrative and criticize what others have said. Usually, though, such arguments are best left to the endnotes.
My thinking, in short, is to keep the reader in mind at all times. But you can read what I have to say on the subject in the issue I've linked to here.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
When a reader picks up a biography, he or she expects the life story of one particular person. But, as I've written before, a good biography pays close attention to secondary characters.
There's one particular type of secondary character that can be particularly useful: the anti-hero. For the sake of discussion, I'll define anti-hero as someone who stands in marked contrast to the main character, in personality, conduct, and outlook. It's that contrast that comes in handy for illuminating the main subject.
Take, for example, the man in the upper right-hand corner of this post: Adelbert Ames, a Union army general in the Civil War, United States senator, and governor of the state of Mississippi. He was also the great-grandfather of George Plimpton, living long enough to meet young Plimpton, who vividly remembered "the General," as everyone in the family called him.
Ames played an important part in my book Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, because he stood on the opposite end of the political spectrum from James. He was not only a Union soldier, he was an abolitionist, and an outspoken advocate of full civil rights for emancipated slaves. His career demonstrates what was at stake after the Civil War, and shows that we can't excuse the racist beliefs of Jesse James and others by saying that, well, they were products of the times. The times also produced men like Ames. James and his bandit colleagues decided to rob Ames in Northfield, Minnesota, at the climax of the fight over Reconstruction.
In The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I found a very different kind of anti-hero: Vanderbilt's son Corneil (as everyone called Cornelius Jeremiah). In this book, the greatest challenge I faced was to illuminate Vanderbilt's inner life. A man of few words, who wrote few letters and burned those he received, the Commodore comes across as a man of force, not emotion. But he was a human being, who experienced the full range of feelings one might have. How to get access to them? How to show how he grappled with intimacy?
Corneil was the answer. He was everything that his father was not: Boastful, dishonest, weak, ill, and—best of all—highly verbose. This gambling addict wrote scores of letters to famous men, especially his patron Horace Greeley, who helpfully preserved them. So did his wife, a much more likable person—a tragic figure, really.
Corneil's correspondence (and the letters written about him) open a window on the private world of the Commodore, showing how he struggled with his disgust for his son's failings and his compassion for his offspring. The relationship itself was important, but its troubled nature offers a rare opportunity for seeing Vanderbilt as a far more complex figure than we ever imagined—a fully fleshed-out person, full of contradictions and conflicting emotions.
Unfortunately, I never found a portrait of Corneil, who plays such an important role in my book. But his real role is that of illustrator, not the illustrated. He inadvertently threw more light on Vanderbilt's inner world than all the thousands of newspaper articles I read in the course of my research.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Here's the sort of problem a biographer faces, that most readers never give a thought to: Footnotes, endnotes, or blind endnotes?
It's a problem, because annotation matters. At the most fundamental level, it's how you prove that what you say is true (or, more properly, well founded). For researchers investigating a topic—and for properly skeptical readers—poorly annotated books are infuriating. As I found, they also happen to be the norm when it comes to Commodore Vanderbilt.
For example, a recent book by Stephen Dando-Collins, Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer, offers many finely-drawn scenes filled with detailed information, without offering any sources for them. The very first page vividly describes Vanderbilt visiting the State Department in early 1849: "Vanderbilt stepped down from the carriage and arched his back to shake off the stiffness of the journey. . . . His mouth was tight, his eyes assessing. Vanderbilt, impatient to do business, strode forward and tramped up four steps and passed in through the Executive Building's side door." Wow! Only there's no source cited for this elaborate depiction—for the simple reason that the event never took place. We know from Joseph L. White's correspondence with the secretary of state that Vanderbilt never went to Washington in early 1849. As far as I can tell, Dando-Collins simply made it up. Unfortunately, this is far from the only example in this book.
So we need to (1) not invent things, and (2) offer up our sources. That much should be obvious. But how to cite our sources?
As a researcher, I love footnotes, in which the sources appear on the page. No flipping back and forth. But many readers, and editors, hate them. They make a book look academic and the page look clunky—especially if you have many sources and extended discussions, which can cause footnotes to run on from one page to the next. It can be ugly.
Don't let that stop you! I, for one, will appreciate your footnotes. But I've sadly restricted myself to a choice between endnotes or blind endnotes. There are advantages to each.
Blind endnotes—in which the annotation in the backmatter cites the page and the opening words of the sentence in question, for which sources are offered—are popular because they're so clean. No endnote numbers in the text, clunking it up. It takes very little practice to be able to quickly connect a quote or declaration in the text to the appropriate note in the back.
But I've decided, for the time being, to stick to standard endnotes. For one thing, I feel that they're more flexible. Except for specific quotes, I rarely have just one source to cite for one fact, declaration, or interpretation. Usually any given stretch of my writing includes overlapping information from multiple sources. I try to offer an endnote every paragraph or two, but breaking down the citations more precisely than that isn't always practical, and I'm not sure it's more helpful.
After all, history isn't journalism. And I say that with a high regard for good journalism. What I mean is that, when dealing with the past, we have to provide a lot more explanation and interpretation of the context than for writing about current or very recent events. Rarely, in writing about the nineteenth century, do I think it's adequate to simply offer a source for a quotation or description of a place; usually I include sources that allowed me to understand the broader context as well.
Because of that, I often engage in side discussions in my notes, as I assess what historians have written before and how I disagree (or whom in particular I agree with). I think endnotes, rather than blind endnotes, are better suited to such mini-essays.
But that's a matter of preference. I don't know that my views on this technical subject should be taken as guidance for other writers, because each of us is entitled to use the citation style that suits us best. But it's nice to know why.