July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
After a decade of wars, elections, and other calamities, our interpreter passes the baton
After ten years of writing this column, I am saying a fond farewell. Not to American Heritage or to writing in general, merely to “In the News.” I had intended to slip away unnoticed, but my good friend and editor Richard Snow offered me the opportunity for a parting word or two, and I find it irresistible. If, however, you turned to this page expecting another essay on the historical echoes of a recent news item and are disappointed, there will be no hard feelings if you stop here.
Why am I quitting now? Mainly because I find myself getting a little repetitious, at least in my own view. Each issue’s “story” is different, but the message is the same: that seeing a current event in historical perspective is a very good thing to do. It’s a safeguard against pontification of all sorts—against “the-sky-is-falling” alarms at one extreme and the “we-are-the-greatest-ever” exultation at the other. It shrinks self-importance, rebukes dogmatism, and builds courage. As a teenager I learned and loved a corny verse from A. E. Housman that runs: “The troubles of our proud and angry dust / Are from eternity and shall not fail / Bear them we can, and if we can we must / Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.” I can laugh, many decades later, at the final words, the half-cynical, half-heroic posturing, the stoic shrug with nose buried in the ale mug. But there’s still a portion of truth in the first three lines.
Take careful note that I did not say history “teaches” us anything. Historians are like expert witnesses; you can always find a couple who will extract opposing “lessons” from the same evidence. And I weary of the frequent defense of historical study by the citation of George Santayana’s statement that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I suspect he meant it less simplistically than those who quote it. The past is never precisely repeated, people often do make the same well-remembered mistake twice, and if the meaning is simply that we don’t learn much from experiences we choose to forget, it hardly ranks among the great ideas or our time. No. History is not a text on How to Plan a Perfectly Flawless Existence. What the study of it does offer, besides the inherent virtues of the long view, is a chance to meet the men and women of the past and to find that despite many differences in circumstance, they are recognizable as neighbors and kin—simultaneously admirable, maddening, predictable, and mysterious. Unearthing that streak of common humanity that binds us all throughout time has given me a slightly better understanding of how the world works as well as alternating bouts of faith in the future and reluctant recognition that imperfection will always be with us. But it’s also furnished a good deal of pleasure. All that is what I have tried to share with you whenever I pointed out a historical precedent or parallel for something that was “in the news.” But having delivered this message so often—this is the eighty-third time by my count—I have run out of fresh ways to phrase it.
By emphasizing the personal gratification of learning history, I don’t mean to discount its importance and necessity. Of course it’s important. We need both collective and individual memory in order to have a grownup identity. But I don’t like to be a Victorian, lecturing people on their duty to be inspired and improved, and in any case trumpeting the importance of history to the American Heritage audience is certainly preaching to the choir. When the editor Byron Dobell invited me to begin the series in 1988, we both had the same view: that each column should be first-person, interesting, informative, and not depressingly earnest. With that in mind I have tried not to sound Olympian and also, most of the time, tried to avoid injecting those columns on controversial topics with my own often strenuous views. Likewise to put behind me the temptation to sarcastic humor. Why possibly alienate someone whom I am trying to make a friendly fellow explorer of the past? I suppose I am not the best judge of how well I’ve succeeded in setting aside my feelings. It was not easy, and I am tempted at this very moment to step from behind the curtain and unbosom myself of a great many opinions. But better sense prevails.
The same better sense warns me not to try a review and assessment of the ten years’ worth of news events among which I fished for topics. Which was most important? If I have made any consistent point at all, it is that we may not know for a long time, and even then there will be disagreement among historians. Right now I’d venture to say it was the end of the Cold War, on which I did no column because I could find nothing to compare with it. It certainly qualifies as the happening that made me feel most upbeat, which is not all that common an experience for contemporary newspaper readers. (The print press is still where I get most of my information.) In fact, a major reason for avoiding a retrospective survey of the 1990s is that there were too many things about them that I disliked, and I don’t want my valedictory to degenerate into septuagenarian harrumphing.
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.