Local History Makes Good

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At the turn of the century, Charles Eliot Norton, professor of art history at Harvard and very much a man of the world, was discussing the works of his colleague, the historian John Fiske. Norton said that Fiske “began with the history of the Universe; went on to the history of the United States; and may yet advance to the history of Cambridge.”

For too long, an interest in local and regional history was considered provincial—a mark of the boastful, logrolling, narrow-minded booster for whom the home team had all the skills of the Yankees and none of the vices. Now we are coming to realize that neglecting the history of your native grounds is perilous. If you don’t have a precise and accurate understanding of your immediate environment—and a decent pride in both its people and landmarks—your opinions on how we should govern ourselves on a national or world level are suspect. To know how you and yours arrived at this point in time and space is your essential heritage; indeed, it is the only true measuring rod and touchstone of the world you will ever have. Americans know this: that’s why they have made Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days a best seller and why Lake Wobegon is sure to be designated the nation’s landmark hometown once the government surveyors can find it.

Unless you live there, to learn American history by starting at Plymouth Rock or Bunker Hill is starting at the wrong end of the telescope. What you see is diminished in size and seems very far away. Looking with your own eyes and listening with your own ears to the life and local history around you has to be the way to begin. Although educators have given lip service to this idea for seventy-five years—and it can be traced back to Emerson—only recently has it begun to be put into practice in our public schools.

But it is not too late for those of us who grew up, as 1 did, with no sense of local history at all. The growth of regional historical organizations and societies represents a great awakening. There are now close to seven thousand historical societies in the country and hundreds of historical publications. As the editor of a national magazine of history, I envy the editors of the regional journals who in aggregate have so much space to tell the stories of their communities and peoples. There are so many stories to tell that any one publication can convey only a few of them. But put them all together, and what a grand historical chorus this makes.

As a first step in recapturing your past, read Lake Wobegon Days . While the laughter and tears are still fresh, proceed to your nearest state or local historical association. As Professor Norton knew, it’s a mark of true worldliness to embrace the fact that we are all provincials.