The Geography Of History

May 2017

When we began to prepare our first travel issue, published in April 1987, some of us wondered a little about the legitimacy of the subject. Where did it fit into our mandate as a history magazine? But for those of us on the staff to whom travel is only slightly less necessary than breathing, the question posed no problem. We knew that whenever we left home—even if we were just going from the front door to the bus stop—we might stumble upon history, if only we could recognize it. And if we needed a measure of authority to ratify our certainty that place and history are entwined, we had only to recall that their embrace is a central theme of literature. Among those it has fascinated is T. S. Eliot. “The end is where we start from,” he wrote in Four Quartets. So do we; what we see around us is the culmination of everything that has gone before, and that’s how we work to fit together the pieces of geography, history, and travel.

In this issue Richard B. Sewall looks at the Yale University he has known for sixty years and reveals that the stony layers and Gothic accretions that might seem at first to be born of a sea-blown spore from medieval Oxbridge are in fact an American creation of the twentieth century. More than once we’ve dispatched Wayne Fields, a regular contributor to the travel issue, from his home in St. Louis to investigate the prairies and small towns at this country’s center, for which he seems to have a special affinity. He’s on the road again.

This time Fields went to Hot Springs, a spa I wanted to learn more about because of a dim memory of days long past when my grandmother left New York on an overnight train—itself a magical concept—to spend a month or more taking the waters in a place that sounded impossibly exotic: Arkansas. Fields came back from his own bath to tell us of the “recurrent message of the place, one unchanged through time, the idea that there is something in these waters that can help keep death at bay, something healing and recreational.”

The journey T. S. Eliot maps in Four Quartets also promises a kind of renewal:

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

Travel with history and you may well have to take the long road home. But you’ll get there.