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January 25, 2009

Walking in Others’ Shoes

Filed under: General,History,Opinion,Philosophy — Steve Hamlin @ 1:59 pm

Thoughts on researching and writing about history

We just got back from our week-long retreat at Cape Cod yesterday. For my regular readers (you know who you are, Mom), I thought I’d post a few lines reporting on our time there.

I spent most of the week working on a history project that I started several years ago. Consequently, my mind has been in the nineteenth century. I started the week as I ended the previous one, reading correspondence dating from the 1830′s to the 1860′s. By midweek, I was writing about events of the 1700′s.

When I wasn’t reading or writing, Linda and I spent time birding. It was cold, but we had a good time anyway. I also managed to get out for two brief bicycle rides.

It’s fascinating to immerse oneself thoroughly in the events of such a different time. I’ve been assembling a timeline of events from the lives of the individuals I intend to write about, fitting them into the context of larger events. In doing so, I’m trying to inject myself into their time, to live in their skin for a little while.

It’s a worthwhile goal, but one I’m ultimately doomed to fail at. No matter how carefully I read the material I have available to me, how thoroughly I digest and internalize it, I’m still me – a child of the 1960′s, living in the 21st century. The best I can hope for is to understand the events of my subjects’ lives better than anyone else, better than those who haven’t had the access to, or probably the interest in, the correspondence I’ve been reading.

Still, it engrosses me to read personal accounts of events that previously, I’ve only known about as accounts in the pages of history books, of occurrences in the distant past. I’ve read letters from surveyors of some of the earliest railroad lines, letters from soldiers in the Civil War, and victims of the attack of Lawrence, Kansas, by the pro-slavery ‘Border Ruffians’.

The letters speak of events, as they happened, without the knowledge of the place they would ultimately come to hold in the history of our country. I read letters from Henry Robert, a Union soldier in the Civil War, to his mother, telling her of battles near New Orleans and in Vicksburg, and speaking longingly of his home in Massachusetts. A few pages later, I read letters from fellow soldiers telling of his death, and describing him as a noble soldier, patriotic to his last breath.

It’s humbling to read these letters. I feel at once privileged and voyeuristic. I’m awed by the hardships people endured so graciously. It makes me much more appreciative of the conveniences we take for granted.

It was a good week.

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