Thoreau Imagines The Greatest History Never Written

“You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer’s wood, or chopping alone in the woods, men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat; who were out not only in 1775 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and plowing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.”

The Field.jpg
Alice Pike Barney, The Field. c. 1892. National Museum of American Art.

I was reading Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” and this passage struck me. In my work as an archivist, I spend a lot of time thinking about historical records and the stories and information they contain. When I appraise new records to see if they should be in the archives, I try to prioritize documentation of underrepresented communities, stories, and perspectives in. It’s always a struggle to predict what kinds of records researchers will want to use in the future.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau. Library of Congress.

Thoreau argues that many important stories from history were never recorded by conventional means, and we need to think creatively to learn about them. On top of that, there is an important difference between histories that are written by people who can speak for themselves, and those who cannot (or choose not to).

Just because history isn’t recorded in your typical books, newspaper articles, diaries, etc., doesn’t mean it’s lost, it just needs to be unlocked. I think this is a really important lesson as historians today are getting more interested in the experiences of historically marginalized groups such as racial minorities, people with disabilities, people of various sexual and gender identities, etc. We should try looking for other types of non-traditional¬†“documents” these communities left behind (or possibly didn’t leave behind as well) and think about them carefully. This requires a lot of thought, but these stories are too important not to tell.

We do need to be very careful about how we interpret these unique records. It’s a lot harder to “read” and understand a farmer’s field than your every-day book, and I’m sure what I would notice or pay attention to could be very different than that farmer. I know many historians are already thinking really hard about how to find non-traditional sources and use them to diversify and expand our understanding of history, and I think Thoreau would be happy to know that.

Are there any fields, or buildings, or other non traditional texts you can think of that record stories and experiences outside our main stream history? How would you use them to write history? I’m really interested to find new types of “records” and make sure that we’re preserving them for the future!


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