Collecting History


Nor do I spend a great deal of time with all the stuff I bought. Some of it is gone. Years ago a friend, having spent the night in my apartment, carefully emptied his ashtray into the wastebasket as he left, and the resulting fire did in a good deal of memorabilia, including Freelon Starbird’s Civil War veterans lithograph (although when I came to write a novel about the American Revolution, I appropriated that satisfying name for both the hero and the book). But every now and then I’ll come across some unlikely survivor—a schedule of the Iron Steamboat line from Manhattan to Coney Island, 1883; a brass-and-wood patent model of a steam escape valve still capable of supple gyrations—and I’ll be oddly reassured.


I suspect that anyone who collects has something of the feeling of gathering reference points to a vanished era. In themselves the fragments may not be especially significant, but each of them has something to say about how Americans once lived their lives. Get them together, and they can impart a sense of continuity and permanence. The world that made them has disappeared, but here and there above the waves of time you can make out the top of a spire, a bit of cornice, some fancy ironwork, and perhaps a dormer window giving from the past onto the present.