Local History Makes Good-sometimes


Although most recent town histories are chiefly of interest to residents, there are occasional happy exceptions, like Edward Pierce Hamilton’s A History of Milton , published by the Milton Historical Society in 1957. I could wish that we had had more American equivalents of the late Reginald L. Hine’s delightful volumes on every possible aspect of the history of his Hertfordshire town of Hitchin. In Massachusetts a good deal of local history gets written because of the personal enthusiasms of historians who have other strings for their bows. … J. Frank Dobie’s Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest , first published in 1942 and “revised and enlarged in both knowledge and wisdom” in 1952, contains a passage that is of universal application in regard to local history: I have heard so much silly bragging by Texans that I now think it would be a blessing to themselves—and a relief to others—if the braggers did not know they lived in Texas. Yet the time is not likely to come when a human being will not be better adapted to his environments by knowing their nature; on the other hand, to study a provincial setting from a provincial point of view is restricting. Nobody should specialize on provincial writings before he has the perspective that only a good deal of good literature and wide history can give. I think it is more important that a dweller in the Southwest read the trial and death of Socrates than all the books extant on killings by Billy the Kid. I think this dweller will fit his land better by understanding Thomas Jefferson’s oath (“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”) than by reading all the books that have been written on ranch life and people. There are no substitutes for nobility, beauty, and wisdom. One of the chief impediments to amplitude and intellectual freedom is provincial inbreeding. I am sorry to see the writings of the Southwest substituted for noble and beautiful and wise literature to which all people everywhere are inheritors.

Local history is admirable when its subject is recognized as a microcosm, as an epitome of the great world. Reginald L. Hine knew this when he spoke of the comfort which the parish historian needs to hug to his heart. His little corner of the universe, wherein he seems to sit alone whispering to himself, is the universe itself; or as old writers were fond of saying, speculum mundi —a little mirror of the world. However the lords of creation may despise him he may hold up his head, for the story of an English town is the story of England itself; and I am not sure whether the spectacle of human life is not more vividly seen refracted through the private experience of a single parish.

When, however, local history becomes an end in itself, a substitute for knowledge of the rest of the world, or a legal requirement in school and college curricula, as is the case in some American states, there is grave danger of its doing harm. Three more sentences of Frank Dobie’s, to which Reginald L. Hine would have subscribed had he ever seen them, furnish good guideposts for anyone concerned with local history: “Good writing about any region is good only to the extent that it has universal appeal. Nothing is too trivial for art, but good art treats nothing in a trivial way. Nothing is too provincial for the regional writer, but he cannot be provincial-minded toward it.”