No Fancy Name
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
imagining the way, way past
Caleb wrote an interesting piece, "Silence of the Past", in which he said:
I find it difficult to imagine the past, to give it dimension, texture, and color in my mind. This surprises me in some ways; as an aspiring historian I spend more time than most people trying to imagine the past, and surely practice helps. Yet as much as I read historical texts and historical narratives, my mental images of times gone by often play like silent movies, or appear to me like scattered collages of sepia photos, or in the best case present themselves to my mind like a disjointed dream.
I'm not an academic historian, and I don't play one on TV, but I do a lot of family history research and spend significant time reconstructing the lives of families. For instance, today I had to break the news to Kate that not only was her grandfather dirt poor, his family were dirt poor farm laborers for at least fifty years before that. In fact, they were typical mid-to-late 19th C. sharecroppers, moving from county to county, (growing) family in tow, for three generations.

In order to track a family through the census and other historical records, I must be able to construct a homestead, town, county in my head. For the work I do, there needn't be the dimension, texture and color that Caleb talks about, but I always manage to invent some. It certainly makes reading pages upon pages of documents much more interesting...and some families are far more interesting than others. My own family is not very interesting -- generations upon generations of farmers, basically. But then I come across something like mkd's family, and all sorts of vivid imagery fills my little pea brain.

Take a main player in Caleb's dissertation -- William Lloyd Garrison. I only know the basics about him, what one learns in history classes and so forth. I learned a little more as Caleb briefly explained his diss. Looking at the census records I have handy, I see how the Garrison family transformed itself a fair amount, in terms of size, wealth and neighborly associates, between 1850, 1860, 1870. When I look at images like these, one page out of a census book, a snapshot of the words of whomever answered the door when the census-taker knocked, I visualize the street and the people, the sounds and even the smells (I grew up in a rural area, which helps with that!). I think I do better research because of it, but I could just have an overactive imagination.


job / books / new blog

04/04 · 05/04 · 06/04 · 07/04 · 08/04 · 09/04 · 10/04 · 11/04 · 12/04 · 01/05 · 02/05 · 03/05 · 04/05 · 05/05 · 06/05 · 07/05 · 08/05 · 09/05 · 10/05 · 11/05 · 12/05 · 01/06 · 02/06 · 03/06 · 04/06 · 05/06 · 06/06 · 07/06 · 08/06 · 09/06 · 10/06 · 11/06 · 12/06 · ???


Creative Commons License
All blog content licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial- ShareAlike.