May 21, 2012
GROWING INTO OUR HISTORY
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Some years ago – about 60, now that I think about it – I went with my fellow students to the campus bookstore to pick up my textbooks. I got used whenever I could, and saved my parents a few bucks that way. Most of the texts were fairly small because the school ran heavily to lectures; but my history text was by contrast massive. European History. It weighed about three pounds, had a dark plum hard cover and inside was decorated everywhere, from flyleaf to flyleaf, with graffiti and doodles. Nary a helpful note; just the owner’s androgynous name (Fran Park, a student a year ahead of me who took a lot of kidding senior year for getting recruiting letters from Smith, Wellesley, and Vassar addressed to “Franny Park”).
Over the next couple of months I fitfully assaulted the crenelated walls of Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and a dozen other mysterious cities without the faintest idea why either I or the historical attackers had bothered. Usually it seemed to have something to do with religion, but it was hard to care. Our master, a pleasant, skeletal man with a stammer that balked at Guelphs, Byzantium, and the Concordat of Worms, must have been embarrassed at having to teach a roomful of restive 16-year-olds such nonsense. Somehow I think I managed a C- for the course, but it wasn’t because I understood a word of it. It bothers me to this day that at the time I ascribed my poor showing to my own failings. The problem was with the course material, irrelevant to our age and interests, and with the teaching, which assumed we’d get it because we needed it for college.
Nothing changed during college years. It was dates, names, and places, to the exclusion of – as I discovered later – people. And then I met Ken Shewmaker, a history professor at Dartmouth with a desire to learn trout fishing, and the unfortunate tendency to fall into spring runoff-swollen streams in chest waders. We hit it off right away. Shortly afterward I discovered why Ken had to restrict the number of students in his classes – History of American Foreign Policy – and had won the Distinguished Teaching Award (voted on by the students) more than once. Suddenly history was about individual people, my favorite topic, rather than the clanking wheels of great movements.
I almost wished at times for the fishing to get slow so I could ask about Teddy Roosevelt’s end run around Congress to get hold of the Isthmus of Panama and all that lovely abandoned French excavating machinery; or inquire about Daniel Webster’s collusion in stealing thousands of tons of guano from Ecuador’s Pacific islands. I knew it was Peru, not Ecuador, but the question always evoked a wonderful hour of historical nudges, winks, and hidden skeletons, and sub rosa payoffs to crooked politicians both foreign and domestic. He brought it all to life again.
Mother and I never thought, during the early days of our marriage, of our deficiency in the study of history. She’d gone to college in the South, still steeped in the Lost Cause, where each of her classmates had a favorite Confederate general and knew all his victorious battles; I was a product of Central New York, and knew about the Erie Canal and the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Beyond that, not much. And yet we’d been told that to be good citizens we ought to be informed citizens, which we decidedly weren’t.
I’ve determined in recent years that for the young, the acquisition of information is too often posed as a requirement for advancement, which can render it onerous. But with advancing age, we are entertained by information, and devour it like miniature Peanut Butter Cups.
A student who’s been swimming at the mouth of the Boquet River on the New York shore comes back with a small cannonball he’s found in the sand. What war is it from? What battle? We pass the ruins of Fort Montgomery near Rouses Point or Fort Knox on the Penobscot River. What in the world were we afraid of when we built them? We stand at the foot of the Robert E. Lee equestrian statue on Confederate Avenue and look across the open fields of Gettysburg at the distant mouths of Union cannon. How could they possibly have thought it possible? While I walked the route of Pickett’s charge, Mother stepped into the woods to see how it must have felt to be hiding there during the cannonade and then emerge. I reached Cemetery Ridge unscathed; she fell on a rock, broke a finger, chipped a tooth, and muddied her blouse. She’s gotten over it since; Pickett never did.
We planned a trip to Ireland, and came up with a bunch of books: Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. Simple, perhaps, but for the first time we could talk about the previously murky progress of Europe from the Fall of Rome to the Renaissance. Then the books written in Gaelic by the Blasket Islanders off the coast of Dingle: beautiful personal accounts of a life not much removed from the medieval. We stumbled across a Languedoc village and monastery founded by St. Guilhem in the 9th century. Who was he? Where are the teachers – we know they exist – who can fire students’ imaginations to learn these things for themselves?
Mother recently finished reading Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening, and like to drove me nuts reading excerpts. She bought me my own copy after finishing hers, which is too marked up with comments to read. We’ll soon be able to chat about the Wide Awakes and Thomas Crittenden. But the biggest lesson has been that, for all the apocalyptic talk in the various media about the coming election, our nation’s been here before – in spades – and a little reflection on the history we wish we’d known before affords us a new perspective on the eternal, yet ephemeral problems we face as a republic. At least Mitch McConnell, as much as he might like to, isn’t beating Chuck Schumer over the head with a cane. We’ve made some progress, I guess.