- Historic Sites
Memory As History
Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
Anyone who is past the age of sixty begins to realize that the long-range memory often is less impaired than the one that is expected to recall yesterday’s events. On the other hand, memory is selective; certain scraps of information are screened out, set aside, probably because they lack significance or relevance or utility. Some people seem to have little facility for retaining salient facts or significant details. Others incline, like the Bunker Hill “veterans,” to exaggerate or embellish, especially when recounting their own participation in an event. And we must not forget Winks’s caveat to consider “beliefs.” So how can the verity of a source’s information be assessed?
Usually it is possible to corroborate the verisimilitude, if not all the particulars tossed up from a person’s memory, by testing his or her account against those of other witnesses or reports in newspapers, magazines, journals, diaries, memoirs, broadcasts. If the source’s story is unique, however, and unattestable by other means, the only option is to make a judgment based on the individual’s credibility and the logic or reasonableness of what he or she has to tell. It goes without saying that the wise interviewer will use a vivid recollection when it meets the test of plausibility but does not affect substantive conclusions.
The past was real to the people who lived it, and in order to get at the truth as they knew it, we must collect beliefs as well as facts.
Memory, we know, plays tricks, and I have encountered several distinct varieties of memory while writing history that is within recall by living people. I purposely omit the so-called Photographic Memory, which I suspect few of us possess, and certainly we may set aside the Manufactured Memory, typified by the grandfathers’ tales of Bunker Hill.
In quite a different class, however, are Conflicting Memories—stories told by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event that do not agree even though the several parties present saw or heard the same things. Another category is what might be called the Serendipitous Memory, in which the historian makes a happy discovery entirely by accident, thanks to a question that happened to produce an unexpected answer. Closely related to it, but not quite of the same cloth, is what I’ll term the Unsolicited Memory—a piece of information that comes in out of the blue, totally unsuspected, because its very existence was unknown and therefore unsought.
Consider, first, Conflicting Memories. Even with the best intentions, two or more witnesses to the same event may disagree on what they saw or heard, as I discovered while interviewing individuals who were present at the Republican National Convention of 1940, when Wendell Willkie was chosen to take on “the champ”—Franklin Roosevelt, who was about to run for an unprecedented third term. Thanks to talks with numerous eyewitnesses and to the voluminous press coverage, it was a fairly simple matter to reconstruct most details of Willkie’s astonishing triumph in what was called the Miracle of Philadelphia. Where I encountered a snag was in tracking down how Sen. Charles McNary happened to be selected as Willkie’s running mate.
According to Samuel Pryor, who was then a vice president of Pan American Airways and a Republican national committeeman from Connecticut, Wendell Willkie telephoned him at 5:00 A.M., just three hours after being nominated, to say he was in a jam. That was a considerable understatement. Of the forty-eight state delegations, only Connecticut had given Willkie all its votes from the first ballot onward. It had done so in the firm conviction that Willkie was committed to Connecticut’s governor, Raymond Baldwin, as his vice-presidential running mate. But Willkie, who was astonished to find that he was regarded by most Republicans at the convention as an Easterner, even though he came from Indiana, found that he was expected to pick a Westerner to balance the ticket.
“What shall I do?” the embarrassed nominee asked Pryor.
“Wendell,” Pryor replied, “you’re pledged to Baldwin. I’m not going to tell him. That’s one job you’ll have to do yourself.” And that, Pryor recalled, was how McNary, not Baldwin, got the nomination.
My uncle Carlton Ketchum, a fund raiser for the Republican party, who attended the convention with the delegates from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told me a very different story of how McNary was selected. Portions of this version he heard himself; the rest he learned from John Hamilton, the party’s national chairman, who, like Pryor, was in a position to know what occurred.
As Hamilton told it, he and Ernest Weir—the boss of Weirton Steel, a big contributor to the GOP, and an early Willkie backer—and several others met in a hotel room immediately after the nomination to discuss the vice-presidential candidate. Because Hamilton was chairman of the party, the group thought it was up to him to warn Willkie that he must decide quickly on his running mate, since it was then between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M. and the convention would reconvene that very day to select the vice-presidential nominee.