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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Missing History

I have just finished reading David McCullough’s Brave Companions: Portraits in History, published in 1992. I wish I had had it when it first came out. I wish I had heard his speech to the 1986 graduates of Middlebury College, Vermont, my sister-in-law’s alma mater, from which he extracted an essay in this book titled “Recommended Itinerary.” I wish I had heard or read his speech in the hall of the House of Representatives, written here as “Simon Willard’s Clock.”

I have traveled a lot, and so I appreciated “Recommended Itinerary” for its insights on the education that travel is, but of course I wish I had gone to the places he listed that I’ve missed, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, where he recommends investigating the patriotism inherent in the vegetable garden. In another essay in the book, “Washington on the Potomac,” I was happy to be able to follow his descriptions around the town, and of course I want to go back and visit places I missed, such as the Library of Congress.

He laments our public education system that produces high school graduates with little idea of U.S. history and even less knowledge of world geography. He is astounded at a lunch with a friend, the editor of an important newspaper, who he accidentally finds out has no idea what Antietam is, or was. How thankful I am for Ken Burns and his landmark 1990 film on the American Civil War, for restoring to at least two generations of Americans an immense body of knowledge so important to our country. McCullough said to his friend, “There are 57,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial and the Vietnam War lasted eleven years. At the Battle of Antietam in one day there were 23,000 casualties. In one day” (223).

McCullough writes, “Imagine a man who professes over and over his unending love for a woman but who knows nothing of where she was born or who her parents were or where she went to school or what her life had been until he came along—and furthermore, doesn’t care to learn” (222). In thus describing a certain type of self-proclaimed patriot of the United States, he condemns the shallow self-interest and hollow feeling of such persons, and today more than ever we have too many of such people in government. They care nothing about our history and the good of our country. (Donald Trump knows little about the history of the United States; he was not even familiar with basic concepts in our Constitution when he took office. He to my mind is the embodiment of the pseudo-patriot David McCullough described.)

In the book are many more essays that I found extremely interesting, especially those that taught me about people who deserve to be rescued from the obscurity of time and the neglect of history in our national culture. I learned about Alexander von Humboldt, about Louis Agassiz, and about Antoine Amédée-Marie-Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa, Marquis de Morès. I learned more about Harriet Stowe than I’d known before, more about Frederic Remington, Conrad Richter, and early airplane pilots than I had known before. I learned more about the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, both of which subjects I had thought I had learned extensively just by reading McCullough’s full-length books about them. I learned about Kentucky strip mining, David Plowden’s photography, and Miriam Rothschild’s many interests (oh, to be able to listen to her speak!), subjects that sent me to Google to find out more, sometimes not returning to this book for several days because I was reading about the subjects of the essay I had just finished.

I wish I had read this book when it first came out. I was so inspired by the listing of subject after subject that the author noted has never been written about in full, that I am now wanting another thirty years (which I probably have) and unlimited funds (which I don’t) and no family obligations (which I have) so that I could travel and research and write some of the fascinating biographies that are still waiting to be done. Alas. In another world!

In “Simon Willard’s Clock” McCullough draws a symbolic relationship between the loss of that actual clock with its carved statuary setting—the Muse Clio riding in her winged car, writing history in her open notebook and inspiring those beneath her, which used to overlook the House of Representatives as they sat deliberating daily in what is now Statuary Hall—and the loss of the lessons of history in the abilities of those attempting to govern us today. He says, “I have decided that the digital watch is the perfect symbol of an imbalance in outlook in our day. It tells us only what time it is now, at this instant, as if that were all anyone would wish or need to know” (232). He notes that the old clock installed by Simon Willard “is a clock with two hands and an old-fashioned face, the kind that shows what time it is now . . . what time it used to be . . . and what time it will become” (232).

We need the understanding of history to deal with our present and to face the future.

Car of History Clock

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