Monday, February 26, 2018

History: Only the Tip of the Iceberg

February 2018
"Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past was ever observed. And only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a part of what was remembered was recorded; only a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what survived has come to the historians' attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian." --Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History (NY: Knopf, 1969)

Wow, quite the quote to ponder. I came across these words while reading yet another book on Ohio's history: Ulysses Underground, The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad, by G.L. Corum (p. 184). Makes me want to get Gottschalk's book and pick his brain a little more about history. What a perspective--profound and yet so amazingly obvious. Of course no one can record and pass on every detail of their lives, most wouldn't even care to. We never truly plumb the depths of our own family histories let alone the grand sweep of centuries. We only see a tiny tip of the great iceberg. Makes me respect historians even more, knowing what all they have to sift through.

I pass this historical cemetery (pictured above) on my morning walk and have done so for many years now. I often ponder what the lives of some of these people in my neighborhood were like 150 years ago. A stroll among the markers reveals the graves of two Civil War veterans along with a Civil War nurse, a marker listing the names of four children on one stone, and a mysterious little gravestone that simply reads "P.W." The grave for the patriarch for which the cemetery is named, John Henry Willsey (1798-1876) is there, as is that of his grandson, also named John Henry Willsey, who was killed in a robbery on his way home from the market in 1916.  Other markers name infants, toddlers, and teenagers as well as the older generations.

Just a bit of history from this little pocket of the world, a tiny sample of the uncountable stories that could be told in neighborhoods everywhere. A few details passed on, many lost. But enduring threads, though invisible and often nameless, carry on from generation to generation don't they? Threads like courage, perseverance, family, discovery, service, sacrifice. Isn't that ultimately what stories of the past teach us-- and inspire us to pass on as well?

What stories from history--family, neighborhood, or otherwise--do you find yourself passing on to others? What strikes you about Gottschalk's quote that you hadn't thought about before?