A brilliant essay on being obsessed with history

I just had to share this essay in the Hudson Review. You all know that I love history in general and have been on a kick lately reading about Native American history in particular. This essay is one of the best things I have read lately on any subject. It’s ostensibly about the Huron tribe, but the author dwells for quite a while about how he came to love history and the improbable relationships he’s developed with various people who also share his passion. It’s wonderful on so many levels, not the least of which is the observation that some of the best history students are not academics at all.

History is not an American pastime. This is partly due, I think, to the fact that history has long been presented to schoolchildren as a thing from which they are meant to draw “lessons,” as though history were a series of unfortunate incidents involving hot skillets and monkey cages, which, in some ways, I suppose it is. The past is something that maladjusted people “dwell on,” after all. “The belief that history has a present use when properly read,” wrote Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence, “is a mark of the modern temper; whole periods and peoples have done quite well without it,” and that seems true enough. Remembrance is morbid, unprofitable. It’s impractical, impolite in certain company. And plainly, we survive whether we record our deeds and disasters for posterity, or we don’t.

Hahahaha. But it is true. This is one of the things I loathed about studying history in school. So much moralizing about irreconcilably messy events and people. So many caricatures. “What did you learn about humanity from this story?” being asked by people who skipped all the fantastic, unlikely, insane, totally unpredictable details in favor of some tedious and not-wholly-accurate thesis.

The neighborhood was under construction in the summer of 1982, and I scoured the half-built houses for refundable pop bottles and cans discarded by the roofers and framers. Sunday mornings, I filled a sack with empties, arranged the cans on the driveway at home, and stomped them one by one till my socks turned tacky with sour beer and cola. Each empty bottle brought me a dime closer to Francis Parkman’s History of France and England in North America, the two-volume Library of America edition with Prussian blue silk ribbons for page-keepers. The set cost forty dollars, or a couple thousand cans, or several hundred bottles. I grew anxious and mulled schemes to swindle the History Book Club, which would doubtless sell out of copies long before I could steal enough loose change to buy my own.

There were maps in those books, the catalog affirmed, reprints of the very maps that Parkman consulted during his researches. Maps of the Ohio Valley and the Pennsylvania frontier, elegant and spare and unadorned maps depicting big rivers bristling with tributary streams that traced back into uncharted forests where the Oneida fished and hunted bear, where the Tuscarora burned their Huron captives, and where the Flemish Bastard and his renegades made their winter camps, there to drink and plot the next raid on the settlements.

I got the money together. On the day the books arrived, I bought a Hershey’s chocolate bar at the convenience store, returned home and sat down, dizzy and exultant, at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and opened Volume I, Pioneers of France in the New World, Chapter I, “Early Spanish Adventure, 1512–1561,” which chronicled the expeditions of Narváez, de Leon, and de Soto. I restrained myself from racing down the page. To read with patience and understanding was agonizing.

I still feel that way when I get a new book in the mail.

In the mid-1990s, I worked as a plumber’s apprentice in Cincinnati and attended plumbers’ trade school at night. The journeyman I worked with was a man named Derek. Broad-shouldered, mid-thirties, dark good looks inherited form his Italian immigrant mother, Derek was a kind man with a generous and disarming nature, and for this reason he was well liked by the office secretaries and by the other tradesmen. I’d never seen a man show such unabashed joy in his children, two girls. His wife was the only woman but one, he told me, that he’d ever slept with. A man generally wouldn’t confess to such a thing if it weren’t true. He was honest like that. Imposture, I think, simply didn’t occur to him.

Here’s an example. A friend of his was killed in a work accident. On the way to a job one morning, we stopped at the cemetery. For a few minutes, he stood in the rain beside the newly-turned grave and remained quiet throughout the day. After work, back at the shop, he wanted to talk about the dead man, but when he brought up the fact of visiting the grave, the other plumbers ridiculed him, and a hurt look came over Derek’s face, an angry hurt.

That kind of person.

One morning, I arrived at the shop—normally a glum place at that hour—and found Derek happily recounting a story to two plumbers. He was not much of a reader, but someone had given him a book, and he’d been carried away by it. He was talking about the swamp-fighting in South Carolina during the American Revolution. I knew the story, and the book’s title.

Francis Marion, Swamp Fox of the Revolution,” I said.

Derek was astonished, warily so, as though I’d read his mind. “How the hell did you know that?” I didn’t tell him that it was the first book I’d ever read on my own, when I was a kid at Saint James Elementary. For me, it was a wonderful coincidence, but I didn’t say so.

Derek embarked on a book jag. He read books about local history, about the Miami and the Shawnee, about the arrival of the French and English in the Ohio River Valley. As we drove the unmarked van around the city from job to job—sweating water pipe, cutting away disused cast iron at a tear-out job, boiling lead in iron ladles in murky crawlspaces—we talked about the Jesuit Marquette’s voyages, about gauntlets and ordeals; about the indefatigable LaSalle, who paddled the lengths of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, both up- and downstream; Little Turtle, brilliant strategist of the Miami, whose confederacy crushed St. Clair’s army on the banks of the Wabash, inflicting the bloodiest defeat ever suffered by the American military at the hands of Native Americans. We talked about prisoner exchanges and broken treaties; captivity stories; the vanished buffalo of the “Cain-tuck” hunting grounds, the great herds that today exist only on a mural painted on the Newport, Kentucky, levee. And the war chief Blue Jacket who, according to a suspect legend, was a white child adopted by the Shawnee. It was Blue Jacket’s men who routed General Harmar’s army from Ohio and Indiana. He was present, too, at Fallen Timbers in 1794, by which time the Americans—with time, men, and money on their side—had learned the strategic value of burning the tribes’ fields and towns.

You must read the entire thing. It is a sublime meditation for a certain sort of person.

4 thoughts on “A brilliant essay on being obsessed with history

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