Warning to My Future Biographers

4 August 2011 at 3:12 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Daniele Besomi, writing at the SHOE list (and shared with permission):

[N]ot only memory is treacherous and selective, but even archival sources are not always fully reliable. In my work on the papers of Roy Harrod I have found examples of self-selection of documents to be preserved for posterity. Already aged 30 he annotated some documents as witnessing his position on some university matters; at 32 he preserved his own side of the correspondence he entertained with some politicians apparently because he deemed it important to keep a trace of it (he normally never kept copies of his outgoing correspondence, almost all handwritten); at 45 he started going through his own archives, annotating some correspondence for the benefit of “future historians of thought.”

At some (probably later) point in life he organized his own archives for the benefit of future readers, and he is likely to have manipulated some contents (besides rearranging the correspondence: annoyingly, the archivists undid some of Harrod’s work and moved some papers to different folders …).

It is in fact very strange that one who preserved tailor’s bills and bus tickets had kept no documents relating to his activities with the New Fabian Research Bureau in the early 1930s: he didn’t keep any of the memoranda he wrote (two at least survive in the NFRB’s archives) nor the correspondence he received about it (but the outgoing letters are in the recipients’ archives), except for a letter from James Meade dealing with theoretical matters and mentioning the NFRB in a postscript — perhaps (I am speculating here) Sir Roy turned conservative was embarrassed of the left-wing tendencies of his younger self.

Look below the fold for some annotations and sources (via Daniele).

aged 30: I am referring to the ‘diary notes’ mentioned in the editorial footnotes to the summary of two letters Harrod wrote in late 1930 (http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/rfh.d5.htm#pgfId=17479) and early 1931 (http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/rfh.dc.htm#pgfId=20640) to the Chair of a commissin encharged by the University of Oxford to propose arrangements for the Bodleian Library; in these notes Harrod gave his point of view on the state of the proceedings.

aged 32: I refer to the letters Harrod wrote to Walter Rnciman, then at the Board of Trade, in 1932. I could not reproduce them on the web site of the electronic reason for copyright reasons, but they are in the printed ed. (The Interwar Papers and Correspondence of Roy Harrod, 3 volumes: Cheltenham: Elgar, 2003) as letters 240, 243 and 249. Here, however, MY OWN memory was faulty: he kept this version not as a backup copy or to prove anything, but because he sent the MSS to a typist.

aged 45: Again I could not reproduce the document on the web edition for copyright reasons (I reproduced the note written in 1945 in a footnote to the first version (1928) of the 1930 paper where he produced the marginal revenue curve (Essay 6 in the printed version, pp. 1063 ff.). Harrod’s note was attached to the bundle of documents relating to this story, which he summarized as follows (Harrod’s summary is pretty accurate)

This letter is of some interest for the history of economic thought.

In 1928 I submitted an article for the Economic Journal setting out the marginal revenue curve as it has come to be called. Keynes submitted this to F.P. Ramsey who in effect rejected it. In the summer of 1928 my quasi-nervous breakdown came on and I could not vex my brain with such matters.

Later I returned to the charge. I approached Ramsey direct who withdrew his objections (see esp. first and last paragraphs). This letter dated July 6 must have been written in 1929. A projected week-end visit (when I was Senior Censor) was cut off by his death in 1930. His obituary appeared in the March Journal of 1930. My article appeared in June 1930.

Had it not been for Ramsey’s misunderstanding I should have been able to claim undisputed priority in setting out the marginal revenue curve (see Joan Robinson’s introduction to Economics of Imperfect Competition 1933).

However I loved Ramsey and bear him no grudge!

R. F. H.

When Ms. Robinson’s book appeared, I narrated to her the story here set out and received the attached postcard in reply (July 10, postmark 1933).

NFRB: The only 2 documents in Harrod’s archives mentioning the NFRB is a letter from Meade mainly on Harrod’s internatonal Economics and with some reference (http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/rfh.128.htm), and another letter on a joint letter to the London Times on policymatters, where Meade refers to a meeting (without specifying that it was NFRB-related) (http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/rfh.13f.htm#11688). The other related documents are all found in other people’s archives (verify by means of the internal search engine, link on left column here: http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/contentsfr.htm, keywords ‘fabian’ or ‘NFRB'; on the importance and extension of Harrod’s commitment with the NFRB see the relevant passages in the general introduction, http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/genintrofr.htm?rfh.7.htm).

REORGANIZATION OF THE ARCHIVES: see the editorial intro to the correspondence, http://economia.unipv.it/harrod/edition/editionstuff/genintrofr.htm?rfh.7.htm, in the section on the Harrod papers at Chiba University of Commerce, in particular notes 7 and 8.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, History of Economic and Management Thought, People. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Ebeling  |  8 August 2011 at 10:07 pm

    It is a strange psychological element in people as to whether or not they think they need to leave their ideas and thought processes for the benefit of future generations.

    William Stanley Jevons kept a meticulous diary recounting how he woke up one morning, looked out the window at the rising sun, and knew that he had discovered the true basis of the “laws of economics” — final (marginal) utility.

    Leon Walras also kept a diary in which future readers could know that one day when a young man, he was walking through the French countryside with his father, August Walras, and while standing by the gate of a farm assured his father that he would continue his father’s search for the true basis of economic value — what became Leon’s formulation of “rarete,” marginal utility.

    Carl Menger left only notebooks of his comments and observations of others’ writings, and outlines of his developing ideas that lead him to his version of the marginal concept — but with, clearly, no idea or intention that these would be read by future generations for their intellectual edification.

    Ludwig von Mises left us a memoir that tells very little about how and when he came to various ideas now considered among his contributions to economics.

    Oskar Morgenstern kept a diary that he surely did not expect to be read by later generations, for as Robert Leonard writes and quotes in his recent book on von Neumann, Morgenstern and the origin of game theory, Morgenstern expressed numerous anti-Semitic-type remarks during his years in Vienna between the two World Wars.

    Schumpeter kept diaries that he surely, also, did not expect to be read by others. During the Second World War he expressed the hope for a German victory over the Allies — though he was most certainly not pro-Nazi, and stated in the diary that he had this wish but could not even rationally explain to himself why he had this desire. (This is quoted in Swedberg’s biography of Schumpeter.)

    Richard Ebeling

  • 2. Rafe’s roundup August 17 at Catallaxy Files  |  16 August 2011 at 10:39 pm

    [...] many of you guys are doctoring your personal records for posterity? Apparently Roy Harrod was arranging stuff for his biographers from a very early [...]

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