Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, weaves an affecting story about the power of human connection in times of crisis.1 First serialized in 1925, albeit not to completion, and informed by his own experiences, it employs psychological realism to capture life in Ukraine during the catastrophic Russian Civil War, which had ended only a few years earlier.2 That experience included the wildfire spread of “uncertain knowledge.” Not surprisingly, rumors—as well as talk of rumors—abound in The White Guard, providing a window into a world fraught with uncertainty.
When the writer Anne Brewster (1818–1892) and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908) met in Italy in 1876, their conversation circled mainly around the recently deceased actress Charlotte Cushman. That itself was hardly unusual—Cushman was the talk of the town. During most of her adult life, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876) was among the most-well known public figures in the Anglophone world. As an American actress who could boast a phenomenal success in Britain with roles as varied as Meg Merrilies and Romeo, Cushman dominated the theatrical scene on both sides of the Atlantic for several decades. While she might be forgotten today,1 she was everywhere during the height of her success. You can’t miss her in databases like ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series and Historical Newspapers or the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Yet if you relied only on these public sources, you’d miss a lot.
Rumors have interested me for a long time—not merely the occasional bits of chatter from my work life but rumors as historical phenomena. In my second semester of undergraduate studies, one of my professors mentioned in passing that the rumor about Christopher Columbus’s return from his first voyage travelled from the Iberian Peninsula to Paris faster than the actual messenger dispatched with the news. Although I have never found any confirmation of that story, it continues to resonate. With that professor’s comment, I began saving any article about rumors I ran across to my computer for future use.
I never thought Plato and I shared a common scholarly interest. My research on the millions of eastern Europeans who emigrated to the United States (ancestors of the subjects of Bruce Springsteen songs) at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemed far removed from what I had once thought were the lofty realms of the the history of knowledge. Even so, armed with two thinkers, Max Weber and Michel Foucault, as well as reams of bureaucratic sources, I started to think about my research in terms of state knowledge in the surveillance and control of migration.1 But what about the everyday experiences of people in transit, experiences as banal as changing trains, which didn’t exactly gel with ideas from the great minds of civilization? Inspectors at Ellis Island didn’t scribble down treatises on free will, yet knowledge must have played a role in everyday experiences . . .