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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What IS History Anyway?

Alas, I get political:

Two years ago, I asked,

Is this the face of someone who'd paint things bleu for no particular reason?

In 1906, Walther Raster founded the Justrite Manufacturing Company with Frederick Becker. They sold this can:

It was rusty and cruddy. It belonged to my grandfather. Strangely, Norma didn't set it out in the garden and paint it bleu (blue).  She painted it green:
The can is about 100 years old and full of history. It has an ingenious spring-loaded, lever-operated lid, so history can't escape unless you pull the handle back real hard. It is a safety feature. History can be quite flammable.

What is history anyway?

As I answered my history-class teacher 50 years ago, "History is social movements and explosions sometimes, but mostly it's barbwire fences and people just standing around."  He kindly accepted my imbecility and asked some other kid. I forget what the other kid said but it was also true. A discussion ensued. This was a time when Timothy Leary said, "Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition." (Yes, he was a feminist by then.) and Joan Baez, her mother and sister, Mimi, posed for a poster captioned, "Women say yes to men who say no." I could go on,  but I don't want to and you can't make me, but history was clearly defined. Still is.

OK, it was a strange decade. There were other names I remember: Martin Luther King Jr.; Medgar Evers --whose murderer went free for 30 years-- and, of course it was open season on the Kennedys.

But basically,  history is people. People are measured by experience, yes, and importantly and most certainly, by their capacity for experience. That is character and conscience. I learned a lot from some amazing and courageous people in my formative years, and from those heroes who followed them --young people too-- and I fear only two things: age making me rusty and cruddy, and Norma coming at me with green paint.




24 comments:

  1. I recently watched a PBS retrospective on 1964. Those of who played our part in the dramas and birthing of that year are probably already "green," but a little touch up paint could still be helpful. I can never quite grasp how rapidly the river flows. Indeed some of our reality is now 50 years on, some of our historic witness is long in the tooth, but a deep part of me still believes it is maybe, 18.
    That is a lovely can.

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    1. Tom, I too have that feeling of time accelerating over our salad days --we are, after all, composites of all ages we've been.

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  2. History was taught to me as dates, rulers and battles when I was at school. I despised it, and did my (excellent) best to forget it all.
    When my maturer self realised that history IS people I became an addict. And am one still.

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    1. Your change of attitude toward history is familiar. We were taught reference points in youth that seemed very important because our marks depended on them, but they composed only a general framework. Real history lived and thought.

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  3. We are living in incredible times, Geo. - often too much to remember and too enormous to be fully absorbed. But we are all touched by history, in our own private and special ways. And, like it or not, we are all part of history.

    There's no need to paint history (leave that to the historians...)- - but if it is painted I'm hoping blue will be used - since that's my favorite color.

    If this makes any sense I'll be astonished.

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    1. It does makes sense and it's probably in our best interest to remain astonished. I accept it as a default state of mind.

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  4. My oldest grandson had a Grandparents Day at school when he was very small. Grandparents were given a loose leaf binder with pages for us to fill with wonderful things to give the child a sense of who we are. One of the questions was for us to describe things that happened in the world while were were young. I wrote and wrote. When I was finished I apologized to him because most of the many things I wrote about were tragedies. I later made another page for him to add to it. That page took more thought but it told of happier occurrences.

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    1. It's a kind thing you did with the added page, Emma. Young people need to know the world is not so baffling after all. They hope to someday play in all of it.

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  5. I'm going to refer you to E.H. Carr, who answered the question to my satisfaction in 1961 in his rather short (for historians) tome "What is History".

    In part "... History consists of a
    corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian
    in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's
    slab. The historian collects them, takes them home,
    and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him."

    I refer you also to how different variations are prepared and served to the Civil War. At various times and era's it's been served in dishes labeled "Slavery", "Economic issues", "States Rights", etc, each believing they were the correct bowl for the dish.

    Oddly, now I'm hungry.

    Cheers,
    Mike

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    1. Mike, your example of the southern US revolution is an excellent example of Carr's idea of the individual being both object and observer of tremendous social forces. It frees up room for the historical dissident to think and act in.

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  6. When I was younger, the 1920's to 1940's felt like they were long ago. I stop now and realize that MY fond memories are the "long ago" of today's youngsters. How can it be that the 1970's are history, when they are so fresh in my head?? But indeed they are.

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    1. O Jenny, that is certain. The 1970s are as remote to modern kids as Edwardian times were to us.

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  7. Dear Geo., When I watch TV series as "Department S" or "The Persuaders", I feel more historic than when I watch "Hercule Poirot" :-)
    Green for the watercan seems utterly right to me - here in Berlin they paint all the water pumps green that stand around mysteriously in the streets - and they function! Though I like blue immensely and painted a whole fence Wedgwood-blue, because the green of the climbers fit so well to it!

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    1. It would appear green is going to join blue on our property too, dear Brigitta. Your color scheme in Berlin sounds lovely. A Wedgewood-blue fence is something I shall mention to Norma --and will likely someday figure in Normaphotos.

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  8. I remember that kind of history/gas can--didn't know they were a century but to think about it, that is probably right as I haven't used one since I was a kid and that was 50 years ago. I have my grandfather's kerosene lantern that he used when sleeping by the tobacco barn when curing tobacco (when they had wood burners, someone had to feed the fire every 2 hours). It is a good memory and still works and I always liked it's light over those blinding coleman lanterns.

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    1. I too prefer the mellow light of kerosene lanterns over Colemans. There's so much more mystery, and scope for imagination in their light.

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  9. We did live in interesting times, didn't we Geo. I am grateful that I witnessed so much and am still around to see more.

    I like green and think that it always goes well with yellow. I don't like orange or anyone who dyes their body that color.

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    1. Fascinating times, Arleen. Still underway! And yes, I'm so glad to have made a friend of you in them. I do like naturally orange people --my eldest son prefers (since childhood) that term over redhead or ginger-- even when hornets would pursue him over his darker siblings.

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  10. I've always loved studying history, but as I grew older, I came to realize that many things we've learned about the past are based on biased opinions. The dates, we can memorize, and for people like me, those set-in-stone dates still rattle around in our brains along with all the other trivial facts that have taken up residence there, but the actual flesh-and-blood realities of the events that happened on those dates is inevitably colored by the opinions of the historians who report them, and maybe later on modified by other people with different sensibilities. Of course, we remember first-hand the events that have taken place since the fifties, but the way today's world considers those things in hindsight, as viewed through the colored lens (blue, perhaps?) of the modern world's knowledge and beliefs may not necessarily mesh with the reality as we know it. Makes me wonder what future historians will have to say about events happening in the world today.

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    1. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, Susan. History is challenged to address a tremendous amount of information --changes of establishment, hegemony, distribution of goods and services, practical and ideological influences on the progress of the individual. It is also, as Konrad Adenauer quipped, "the sum total of things that could have been avoided." My guess about future historians is prefaced by the hope that they will exist.

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  11. I have always been fascinated with history, Geo...not the kind of history I was taught in school (the Luddite riots and the Ford Motor Company etc.)...but the "real" history of ordinary lives and customs.
    It is strange how history seems to change as we grow older. As a young teenager I, too, used to think my parents were born what seemed like centuries ago...yet now those teenage years (the 70's) still seem like only yesterday.
    Perhaps time is more fluid than we believe it to be...;))

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    1. True. Our experience of time is psychological as well as physical. Our memories and characters guide us in navigating, selecting futures that best include us. We live, after all --and before all-- in a universe where all possibilities are assembled. Big job, and often quite fun!

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  12. You will never be old and rusty, Geo. Original thinkers like you keep the wheels well oiled on the rest of us.

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