Housekeeping

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A case can be made that housekeeping is the basis of civilization and that historians are the ultimate housekeepers. The thought might occur to anyone who has helped clean out the closets of an elderly relative, an experience that is both tedious and exhilarating. Tedious because of the sheer mass of documents and artifacts that may once have made perfect sense to the owner but now appear so various, so muddled, so redundant, they are fit only for the dump. Hundreds of checkbooks covering the past fifty years. Thousands of paid bills, interesting only when one falls out of the pile and reveals a month’s telephone charges that total four dollars. This is not too exciting, but what about the carbon of a ticket for a seat on a Pan Am flying boat to Rio in 1940? It resonates with meaning, and there are other items like it: a silver bowl bearing the Navy E for “Excellence,” awarded to the owner during World War Il for mass-producing parachutes; a photograph of great-grandparents and family posing in the old country, before the children scattered to New York, Johannesburg, and Sydney. A love letter from Carlsbad, a doctor’s report from Battle Creek. Sheaves of crumbling newsclips mixed with postcards bright as the day they were sent. Marriages, deaths, bankruptcies, birthdays, births. Not History, perhaps, but history. What of this can or should be saved? The question doesn’t really come up because there is no time to sort it all out, no one to devote another life to the life that has been lived.

There are few repositories for the lives of the relatively obscure, but we try to salvage what we can. Some graduate student of the future may be delighted to come upon the diaries of a teen-age girl born in 1900 who innocently records the slang and speech patterns of a generation now almost gone. (It was never “Father’s automobile,” it was always his “motor.”) Would some historical society appreciate an Art Nouveau ceramic vase presented in 1902 to a bereaved couple in memory of their two-year-old boy by the doctors who attended him?

It is all too much, too overwhelming, and probably just as well that most of the remnants of a lifetime will be carted off; the most important clues to a human life may well be irretrievable. In Citizen Kane , Charles Foster Kane’s secret seems to be connected with his dying word: Rosebud . At the end of the film, the camera roams a gigantic warehouse filled with boxes and furniture from every period of the great man’s life. Off in the distance workmen are tossing objects into a furnace. As we move toward the fire, we see in close-up a child’s sled, flames licking at the trademark which is, of course, Rosebud . It was the word that evoked for Kane one of his few happy memories.

The professional housekeepers favor the mighty of the earth: the presidents, the generals, the lords of money, and the makers of great art and great bridges—their archives are tended carefully and will give generations of scholars a livelihood. For historians the fame of the subject makes precious and important what would be the debris of a less exalted mortal’s life. By making order, the historian-housekeepers preserve the personal and institutional history of the nation; they take on the burden that we often find too much to bear in our own lives.