- Historic Sites
Setting Down The Parallels
After a decade of wars, elections, and other calamities, our interpreter passes the baton
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
Which was the most important event? If I have made any consistent point at all, it is that we likely won’t know for a long time.
In any case my subjects weren’t always picked for cosmic significance. The understood ground rules were that the takeoff point should be some specific news item rather than a general trend and that it should still be relevant and memorable in about three months, the usual time between composition and appearance. That has allowed me to talk about a great number of things, most of them self-chosen after some stewing and sorting, and all after final consultation with Richard, who never unreasonably withheld his consent. He himself occasionally made suggestions, sometimes relayed from Frederick Alien or other editorial staff members. A few ideas came from family members or friends, and this is a good place to express my gratitude.
So I have wandered erratically from grave matters like the Gulf War and impeachment, to conventional historical turning points like the opening of Japan or the election of 1896, to meditations on the higher meaning of pork inspection, polygamy, presidential sports activities, juvenile justice, and the war on sexually transmitted diseases. Some were hard to do, and some rolled out as easily as sliding downhill, which any writer will tell you is not the usual experience of composition. It’s these last that are my personal favorites. I can’t pick a single winner, but among my own top handful are the column inspired by the effort to prove that Zachary Taylor was poisoned (“Post-Mortem Publicity,” November 1991); that in which I summoned up remembrance of old-time political conventions (“Gatherings of the Faithful,” July/August 1992); my fortieth birthday salute to American Heritage (December 1994); and the one in which I freely expressed my view on what we could learn from the story of Sally Hemings, which I believed to be true even before the genetic evidence was added (“Jefferson’s Mistress?,” November 1997).
I end this personal recollection by repeating once more my commitment to “popular” history, which I’ve been writing for all these years, with a bit of television work thrown in. I don’t like the term. It has a pejorative flavor, much like its antonym of “academic” history. I’ve read good and bad examples of both, I know good people who do both, and I wish the wall between the camps weren’t so high. But I know where I stand. I’m unchangeably a storyteller. I never had any interest in research that didn’t lead to a narrative able to move the hearts and imaginations of nonspecialist readers, and I have a hard time comprehending the justification for any other kind of historical inquiry. I’ve heard the argument that just as science became more sophisticated and necessarily inaccessible to the generalist, so it has been with history. I won’t try to rebut it ex parte (that is, without some representative of that view present). But I frankly doubt it.
It is wiser always not to linger at the door. My thanks to the editors and fact checkers with whom I have worked pleasantly over these years. Likewise, to those readers who troubled to write to me or the “Correspondence” page in support or dissent, I appreciate your attention. To all of you, I want to say that I have gotten unqualified enjoyment from history since my first childhood visit to a museum, my first reading of a “juvenile” biography, my first high school term paper, my first thrilling graduate school encounter with an actual manuscript letter laid on my desk by an archivist. I still do. I hope that it’s been reflected in these little excursions and that some of it has rubbed off on you. Good-bye for now.