Not being a big hot dog fan, for me the best part about holidays is that you often learn something about history that you didn’t know. It is especially true this week when we get the Independence Day discussions on talk shows. Driving to the gym this morning I landed on KQED Forum where Michael Krasny was interviewing several historians about our founding fathers (miss those founding mothers) and our Declaration of Independence, which unfortunately didn’t quite give the same rights of independence to everyone. Maybe that’s why our lives are never done. We need to keep evolving and re-interpreting and making words from over 3 centuries ago relevant to our current consciousness. And although scientists say as a species we have evolved because of our flexibility and capacity to adapt to new situations, we have not shown ourselves to be so flexible regarding our old ideas. Could they let a few more of us on the Supreme Court please?
That said, do you love learning some new tidbit about history as much as I do? One of Krasny’s guests was Kenneth Davis, a historian who has written a book called “Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History But Never Learned.” He had me at the title, humming the old Sam Cooke tune by the same name. I always appreciate a good book title. Most of us know very little about American history. And the bare bones we get in school are often misleading and sometimes downright incorrect. I used to wonder why historians keep writing books about subjects that have already been covered, but now, as a memoirist myself, I understand why.
History writing is like memoir writing. History comes alive through an observer, and each observer sees differently and brings a new perspective. Pushing the comparison just a little, historians, like scientists, will claim ownership of hard facts: letters written by John Adams, records of significant meetings, drawings that show who attended, documents in the graceful hand of calligraphers on parchment paper. FACTS. But in truth, a historian, to be a good one, must be intuitive like a memoir writer, must listen to the stories one can gather and see the connections, understand the context, bring in the humanity, because behind every act or event there is person who drew from his or her past experience.
Perhaps “The Woman in the Photograph” is a limited, very personal piece of history. But sifting through the scraps of truth, the documents and photographs, the remnants of conversation, the memories of others, I discovered with new appreciation the art and craft of a good historian. Perhaps it is not objectivity that makes a good historian but just the reverse. Subjectivity that brings the characters to life so we can know them and be part of history. Thought you might enjoy my book trailer, with its wink at history.
I have found that realizing “I don’t know much about…” is the best starting point for a new adventure of discovery. Happy Fourth!