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.”

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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!


So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

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This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tom Watson

Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

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Richard Silvester and Maryland Agricultural College: “A School for the Farmer’s Boy”

Do you think that farming is “the loveliest of all professions on the face of the earth?” Would you argue that agrarian work is “the vocation on which all prosperity rests?” Or would you be so bold as to say that working on a farm “brings men into contact with that mysterious principle of life, that essence of God in the world?” If you answered yes to any of these, then you should have gone to the Maryland Agricultural College in 1895! This small land-grant college that eventually became the University of Maryland, College Park (my alma mater!) was originally a school devoted to training farmers and using agriculture experimentation to support the state’s farms. In order to really understand the college’s role in agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, let’s get acquainted with Richard Silvester, the 16th president of the school.

Revilee_Silvester Portrait

Richard W. Silvester (1857-1916). Image Credit: 1900 Reveille.

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