A conversation with Kim Bancroft

Kim Bancroft 2__USE

Kim Bancroft is a longtime teacher turned editor and writer. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Hubert Howe Bancroft, a bookseller in San Francisco during the Gold Rush who created and ran what he called a “history factory.” He assembled a vast library of books, maps, letters, and documents; hired scribes to copy material; employed interviewers to capture the memories of early Spanish and Mexican settlers; and published an extraordinary set of volumes sold throughout the country by his subscription agents. In 1890 Bancroft published the thirty-ninth and final volume of his monumental “Works”: an eight-hundred-page autobiography, Literary Industries. Kim created an abridged edition that introduces modern readers to H. H. Bancroft. Literary Industries: Chasing a Vanishing West reveals the life and thoughts of a witty, opinionated publisher dedicated to recording and collecting the history of California and the American West.

This description could also apply to Heyday’s publisher, Malcolm Margolin. While Literary Industries was in production at Heyday, Kim recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with Margolin, along with a host of current and former Heyday staff, authors, board members, friends, and cultural leaders to tell the story of “the plucky Bay Area publisher [that] not only still stands but continues to innovate.” The result is the forthcoming Heyday title, The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of a Fiercely Independent Publisher.

I recently spoke with Kim about an editor’s role in developing a memoir, the legacy of Hubert Howe Bancroft, and her work on The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin. 

You’ve edited several memoirs, including The Morning the Sun Went Down for Heyday, and you just completed Literary Industries: Chasing a Vanishing West. You’re now at work on The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin. What do you find appealing or exciting about playing this very significant role in the development of someone else’s story?

I’d have to say that I completely just fell into it. It was never even a plan. At different points in time people offered me the opportunity to edit memoirs. There was another one in there too; the first one that I did was of a Holocaust survivor. So all of these stories have been of people who’ve had really significant experiences in their lives, and had important roles, including Malcolm, of course.

I find it compelling to get to be part of that history in the sense that somebody’s telling it to me directly or I’m working with their text. These are fabulous stories that I learn a lot from.  It also’s important in many cases, like Darryl’s, to get the story out there about what happened for Native peoples and their lives, once they were wrenched apart from Native communities and families. So there’s just so much there that we can learn. Because they’re personal stories, also, I think people learn from them in ways that they may not from a regular historical text.

This relationship between storyteller or author and editor seems to convey a lot of trust that you will shape the story in a way that presents a clear picture without distortion and yet also keeps things concise and engaging enough for a reader.

That’s exactly right. Can you just say I said all of that instead of you?

Sure. No problem.

That’s actually a good example where, as an editor, I try to bring out better what the other person could be saying. I was working with Ariel Parkinson on her manuscript that she’d already written. I got to sit down with her and go through it page by page. I’d sit there and say, “This is a really great story but I’m kind of lost with this list of names of people you knew in the late 1940s, and they’re not relevant to many of us. Why don’t you tell me a story about them?” So that was really fun because I got to work more as an oral historian and then decide what’s relevant and what’s interesting for an audience today. That’s a bit tricky, because something that could have been really important to somebody who’s telling the story is not going to work on the written page.

That was, of course, also true with Malcolm. We had a couple of go-arounds in a friendly way where I said, “Okay, obviously I’m changing some of your words in the book because I want it to be more concise,” or because he uses “damn.” He uses curse words very emphatically, and they’re part of his language. So I also want to keep it sounding like him without offending anyone or ruining his reputation!

Then there’s the question of which stories are just not appropriate. I’ve tried to visit all of the eighty-year-olds in my family tree in the last few years to have them tell me their own sense of history relating to H. H. Bancroft and what they learned from their family. He was their great-grandfather. People would sometimes open up and tell me a story, some of them very tragic or sad or revealing.  I’d transcribe the interview and send it back, and they’d say, “Oh, I can’t believe I told you that story. Can you delete it from the record?” So again, it’s a wonderful experience for me as an oral historian or an interviewer to get somebody to open up, but they’re taking me into their confidence. I can’t ruin that and put them at risk for having something out in the public—even a printed document that might fall into the hands of their kids, much less the public—that would harm them.

Well, okay, let’s think about it. Why do you think you did that? What did motivate you to make that particular decision?

You want to get the facts and you want to put out what really happened, and it seems so interesting to take that truth-seeking vision and combine it with this compassionate do-no-harm philosophy. It’s laudable and it might be a struggle sometimes.

That can be fun about the interviewing, or the oral historian role. It came up quite a bit with Malcolm—in his case, he kept insisting that he’s not very introspective, and he doesn’t really take a psychological approach to things. And there were topics that he hadn’t really thought about. I think that could have been true, since we started talking about what happened to him forty and fifty years ago, in his childhood. On the one hand, you don’t want to push somebody if they say, “Hey, I don’t want to talk about this,” but it’s a different thing if they say, “No, I haven’t really thought about it.” Well, okay, let’s think about it. Why do you think you did that? What did motivate you to make that particular decision? And to push the person to go deeper. In some cases, it’s a little bit like being a psychologist, when you’re getting the person to describe and analyze very personal decisions.

But it can also be very fruitful. I heard Gayle [Wattawa, Editorial & Acquisitions Director] say, reading chapters from Malcolm’s book, how wonderful it was to see his level of introspection about things. So I’m glad that I could push him on that in some ways, for that level of self-analysis to come out.

I’m so taken with the idea of Bancroft oral historians, like a trait that runs through your family.

I don’t know if it runs through the whole family because I was not that interested in my family history until I probably hit fifty. I was a full-time, overtime teacher, and I had no time to breathe anything besides editing my students’ papers. It wasn’t until the renovation of The Bancroft Library in 2009 when Theresa Salazar, whom I credit for changing my life in this way, said, “Hey, there are some really interesting papers and diaries and albums in here that you should pay attention to.” I finally made time to do that.

It is true that my interest in oral history goes back much further. Actually, I credit a history professor in college for that. It was a women’s history class, and she had everybody go out and interview an older woman. Anyhow,that got me interested in doing oral history. Then I remember putting a tape recorder before my grandmother who was born in 1902, and I just loved getting her to tell her story. So that made me a convert.

Obviously you have this familial connection to H. H. Bancroft. Do you feel like the whole process of grappling with his autobiography has brought you closer to this ancestor? Has working with this life’s story changed any conceptions or illuminated any aspects of your family history?

Image of Hubert Howe Bancroft courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Image of Hubert Howe Bancroft courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

On a personal level, I definitely feel more proud of what he did, the positive things. For example, next week I’ll be talking at the California Historical Society and I went in and I looked at the exhibit that they have on Juana Briones. So my presentation about Literary Industries will focus more on what H. H. Bancroft did in collecting information, archiving, and taking dictations—oral histories— from the Mexican Californio community. And there in the exhibit is a dictation—a notebook—that Thomas Savage, one of his assistants, had of Charles Brown, a man who had come under the influence of Juana Briones. I just get this chill that H. H. Bancroft made this work happen, at great sacrifice to himself, so that the story of Charles Brown, and by extension Juana Briones, could be saved, and we now have this information to help us learn about the past. So in some ways it connects back to me on a very powerful level that I get to learn about my own past.

Also, I feel an almost mystical connection to the women in the Bancroft family who made sure that these diaries and letters were saved and put into The Bancroft Library. There’s also another collection of H. H. Bancroft’s first wife, Emily, who died in childbirth very sadly in 1869; all of her papers are saved at the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UC San Diego. So I do feel like there’s almost a mystical connection between some of the women in the family who helped carry on this tradition and that I am getting to learn it and continue it as an oral historian and interviewer and writer myself.

There are also some things about H. H. that come out of his autobiography that I’m not very proud of, the ways in which he presents himself as a racist, or as a sexist. People say, “Well, he was a man of his time, and did a lot of great things besides badmouthing some people of color.” For example, in Literary Industries he calls some of the Native Americans “savages,” and at the same time he bemoans how they were treated by the Indian butchers. So I think about how to deal with that, take pride in what an ancestor did, and at the same time reject the negative stuff that they did 150 years ago? Well, these are complicated people, and we have to embrace our contradictions.

To me, it’s sort of the mark of an engaging literary voice—whether it’s an autobiography or an essayist or even a novel with a first-person narrator—where, when I’m reading the text and the speaker says something I fundamentally disagree with, it can almost feel like betrayal. And yet, when I don’t want to put the book down because of that, when I want to stay and debate it, it’s a mark that I’m actively participating with the text.

Yeah, I had debates in literature classes about learning that some famous poet had Nazi sympathies, so do we just reject ever reading that person’s poetry? And for some people, the feeling will be, “Hey, I just can’t even abide that. There’s enough other people with good poetry around I’ll read instead”—and others who would say, “We have to compartmentalize and tuck that piece of information about the person into one part of our brains, so we can also appreciate the other aspects of what they created.

I think that that’s part of the mix of embracing the contradictions.

Especially as an editor, you don’t want to amputate the text.

When I was going through Literary Industries I was cutting out huge swathes of his lectures, because he used the book, in a way, to teach. So I cut out loads of that, keeping in enough to show that this was somebody who had very strong opinions and liked to use his writing as a way to teach others how to think and how to act. In some of those places,for example, he talked about “savagism,” or how the Americans were bringing a wonderful new civilization to the West Coast and replacing the lazy way of life of the Mexican Californios. Part of me just wanted to rip all of that out and make him look good. The larger part of me, obviously, said, “No, you cannot literally whitewash somebody’s character. This was also part of how he viewed the world.”

The irony is he claims he is an objective pursuer of the truth, yet many of the truths that he held in those days we’ve now discounted, such as whether women are really strong enough to lead the life of a writer. Still, I think it’s better, even in his footsteps, to follow and put the facts out there. The fact is that these are some of the things that he believed about Native Americans, about African Americans, or about the Chinese, so let’s be able to evaluate those in light of the truths that we see in the twenty-first century.

In your preface to this edition of Literary Industries, you do mention that you were pleasantly surprised to discover that much of H. H.’s social commentary is very relevant today. Can you talk about the positives?

Definitely. I think that that’s part of the mix of embracing the contradictions. Here’s a man who had come from a relatively poor, large farm family who had never been able to finish formal high school and couldn’t afford to go to college, who loved learning, who was a tremendous scholar, and so a lot of his work is about celebrating scholarship, the great literature and history, and perpetuating it. He says he sees that no higher cause in life than writing history.

He talks a lot about how to protect one’s ability to do that kind of intellectual work. How to take care of the body, how to regulate one’s day, and how not to put things like avarice and the accumulation of wealth before the mental work that is necessary for a life of scholarship. In various places you see him criticizing what happened in his society where people had rushed to California to make their money and left behind values about taking care of society. You can see some of his better values as stemming from his Puritan upbringing, where those values of serving society are really apparent. We also see his desire to do something for society by creating this history and this library of important documents about the history of the West.

There’s something wonderful in that spirit of publishers who are really dedicated to and passionate about the work that they’re putting out into the world, no matter the cost.

I’d like to switch gears and ask how editing memoirs prepared you or didn’t prepare you for the assembling of The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin. Or is it just a completely new beast?

Editing Literary Industries was pretty different. What was more relevant for Malcolm’s book was my doctoral thesis. For my PhD, I did a huge study on charter schools in the Bay Area, with something like seventy-five interviews with students and principals, parents and teachers, and had tons of archives. So in a way, doing Malcolm’s book was a little bit more like that process in terms of taking this mass of data and cutting and pasting and trying to figure out an internal logic. What were the themes? Where would things fit together? Whose voices might balance well against other voices in certain patches? In that sense, writing The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin was really more akin to doing my thesis than cutting back drastically from an extant text. But it was a whole lot more fun than doing a thesis!

I was around when you were conducting your interviews, and we even talked. I’m super excited to see how it all turns out. And I think that our readers are getting pretty excited about it, too.

Oh, good! It’s all been just magical in a way. After I left teaching, I had come to Malcolm and asked if there was any editing work he could help me get, and he put me in touch with Ariel Parkinson, so I worked on her book. Then when I asked Malcolm when he was going to do his memoir, he said, “Well, I’m not really sure. What else are you working on?”

Then I pulled out Literary Industries. at the same time Literary Industries was going through the process of being acquired and edited and designed, I was working with Malcolm for his book, learning about how Heyday works. It was just a wonderful, serendipitous process. Getting the chance to talk to each of you here was so special and provided another lens of who Malcolm is and what Heyday is—things that seem so memorable and so wonderful, like your line about trying to keep Malcolm disciplined with his scheduling a little bit—

[resigned laughter]

—like a horse that’s already in motion, it just resonated.

H. H. and Malcolm are both so dedicated to gaining as complete, or as curated, a picture of California as possible, in all of its contradictions and multiplicities. Counter to that, it seems the process of taking a text that’s extant and whittling it down, versus creating a narrative out of all these voices and documents and photos and ephemera, those processes are so different. Do you have insights on these two men from grappling with them in such different ways—their similarities and their differences, perhaps?

Image of Malcolm Margolin courtesy of Kim Bancroft

Image of Malcolm Margolin courtesy of Kim Bancroft

Malcolm has said a couple of times how much he identifies with Hubert because he, too, as a young man in California, decided little by little to get into writing and selling books and didn’t really have a plan. But in the case of H. H., he started out selling books, and then collecting books, and then writing history; for Malcolm, it was about working in the parks at first, and then writing and collecting books that he wanted to publish, and then having his own company. So I think that there are similarities in terms of these men who are both relaxed about what’s going to happen in the future but have certain ambitions. I mean, Malcolm knew he wanted to write and could be a great writer. That’s one of the lines in his book, one of his friends said, “You have to stay in New York, and be a great writer.” And he continued to do a lot of writing that has meant a lot to people, whether they’re introductions to Heyday books, and of course The Ohlone Way and The East Bay Out, and writing or speaking in a whole variety of contexts—literature, history, natural history. So he’s had a tremendous ability to influence people.

What’s really different, I think, is that H. H. talked about his extreme sensitiveness and shyness, and as a result, he really didn’t put himself out into society very much when he didn’t have to, whereas Malcolm is a social media unto himself. So he’s been able to have experiences building communities that are obviously very different from what H. H. did, and they have very different values in other respects as well. Malcolm’s much more informal and endearing in that respect. It’s been fun to have these two men I’ve been working with at simultaneous times overlap in different realms.

Any last words for the Heyday blogosphere?

There’s one line from H. H. that I’ve been thinking about, working with Malcolm and with Literary Industries: “I always had a taste, more pleasant than profitable, for publishing books, for conceiving a work and having it wrought out under my direction.” I think that’s a wonderful line that fits with Malcolm, too, that the work of creating books is sometimes more pleasant than profitable. There’s something wonderful in that spirit of publishers who are really dedicated to and passionate about the work that they’re putting out into the world, no matter the cost.