Saturday, July 30, 2016

Authentic Voices from the Past

When I was a kid my brothers and I read a lot of books about history. I suppose because I grew up with brothers (I have four sisters but they are a good deal younger, when I was a kid it was just me and two brothers) who were interested in things like war and settling the west and cowboys and Indians and all that stuff, I just went along with it. There were a lot of comic books in our house about those subjects. We watched television programs about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. We went on school trips to Gettysburg which was a few hours away. Consequently, over the course of years, certain names loomed large in my pantheon of heroes.

As an adult I can't say I thought much about them until a little over a year ago when I decided to write The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt. The title story of that collection is about four orphaned brothers who come to Pennsylvania and wind up fighting in the Union Army as part of the 42nd Pennsylvania, a.k.a. The Bucktails. I started doing a lot of research and many names of those old heroes came up. For awhile I was mostly reading books by various authors with big reputations as Civil War scholars. Then in one book the author included a rather lengthy excerpt from the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.

I don't know why I had never thought of it before, but it suddenly struck me that I could read the real, actual, authentic words set down by the people who I had, up to that time, only been reading about. I discovered that Amazon offered both volumes of Grant's memoirs for Kindle for 99¢. I immediately downloaded them and started reading. And I was sucked in. I had to keep reminding myself that these were the words that Grant himself wrote. Some of his stories were so charming—how he almost drowned himself by trying to board a ship without disturbing the crew, and his utter awe at seeing hundreds of acres of Texas landscape covered with wild mustangs. To say I fell in love is an understatement. I couldn't stop reading.

When I finished the book—teary-eyed because I knew those last words were written when he only had a few weeks to live, that he was in unbearable pain and forced himself to stay alive just to finish the book so his wife and children would have an income. His publisher, Mark Twain, writes of what an agony it was to see the old lion, nothing but skin and bones, wrapped in blankets, doggedly writing those last few chapters. The book became the best-selling book America had ever seen, eclipsing sales of all Twain's books, but Grant never lived to see that.

After I finished my book, I kept thinking about the thrill of reading such a great man's last words. So, for pennies, I downloaded George Washington's Journal, which was rather dull but still exciting to read his actual words. I then read The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (he spends more time bitching about shoveling snow than almost anything else and makes the astute observation that he'd better find someone to marry or he is going to wind up in the poorhouse.) I then read Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography and was, once again, thrilled and charmed to see the world through his eyes. It included the information that he was pretty sure his famous charge up San Juan Hill was greatly mythic because he charged the wrong hill.

I really don't know how to explain it but I find such a thrill in reading these memoirs. Maybe because I grew up admiring these men and, in my kid's brain, they were sort of fictional characters on the level of Superman and Batman. Now as an adult, they are not only real, but also writers which is something I can relate to.

Recently I read Gore Vidal's Burr. I'd been meaning to read it for years and when Amazon offered it for Kindle for $1.99 I grabbed it. I had just finished reading a biography of Rachel Jackson, Andrew Jackson's wife, who died before she could become First Lady. Burr is an epic, monolithic book filled with color, drama, gossip, snark, and history, with an ending so touching it took me completely by surprise. And, though it is fiction, it stirred in me the desire to go back to reading more first-hand accounts. I wanted to spend more time listening to distinguished voices from the past.

I have long believed it is always a mistake to confuse the magic with the magician. It is too easy to say this one was a murderer, and that one was a despot, and another one was an utter cad. Those things may be true, but when I listen to their voices, I hear something else—I hear people trying to do the best they can with what they have available to them. And, yes, sometimes that is not good enough.

As I flipped through my Kindle (which has nearly 1500 books on it), I came across The Memoirs of W.T. Sherman, Grant's good friend. Sherman has always seemed an enigmatic figure to me—both a charming, likable man who instituted a practice of storytelling evenings when he was the headmaster at a boys' school, and a dark, tortured, and possibly mad, military leader. I started reading and one of the first boyhood memories I encountered was Sherman's story of how, as a plebe on his way to West Point, he visited Washington for the first time. Out for a stroll to see the sights early one morning, he walked past the White House and there in the driveway saw Andrew Jackson—old, skeletal, still carrying two bullets in his body, wrapped in a blanket—pacing up and down. Sherman says he stood for an hour, his face pressed to the fence, watching the President pace. These are the stories I love.


Thanks for reading.

32 comments:

  1. Reading the primary sources is the absolute best research you can do. I used to hide in the library where they had microfiche readers (yes, I'm dating myself) and read newspaper accounts of history unfolding just to get as close to the actual event as possible. Biography and memoire are even better. You've whetted my appetite for more of this kind of reading.

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    1. Oh, Lee, I've read may a microfiche article. I love this stuff and Amazon makes it so cheap for Kindle. I just spent the last 2 hours o my porch reading Davy Crockett's memoir which he ever finished on account of getting killed at the Alamo and all that.

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  2. History is fascinating. These are real people who had real experiences. Their words are rich in emotion and conflict. What a wonderful blog, to remind us to read the originals.

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    1. It makes these people so real and so relatable. And their observations on their fellows is just delicious. But what I love the most is when I find very self-deprecating senses of humor. Grant is excellent at that--Teddy Roosevelt not so much.

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  3. First hand accounts... Yes, it's amazing that these are so easy to find, at least nowadays.

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    1. And cheap, too! Between Guttenberg and Amazon everything is available for around a dollar!

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  4. Hi, Kathleen!

    Mrs. Shady and I are history and Civil War buffs and can relate to your testimony. It is indeed exciting when you get inside the minds of people who lived in another time and imagine their voices speaking to you as you read their actual words. My mother once showed me an old diary she obtained in her youth. It was written at the turn of the 20th century by a man who lived in our region of Pennsylvania. Enthralled, I read his diary cover to cover. Vicariously I experienced the highlights of his life from 1900 to 1902, the simple pleasures, the small victories, the challenges and setbacks, and got a real sense of what life was like back then.

    Thank you for the fascinating post, dear friend Kathleen, and enjoy the rest of your weekend!

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    1. Hi, Shady, I would have loved that diary! When I was working on my book about the Bucktails I found a diary of a young soldier who was in the Bucktail regiment and it was just PACKED with good, useful stuff. It was so amazing. Only about 50 pages long but those 50 pages were wonderful.

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  5. Isn't it funny how reading about/from our past show us how little humans really have changed? We tend to believe that politicians from earlier times were somehow less snarky or gossipy than politicians nowadays.

    I remember reading biographies of the great explorers as a teenager (Cook, Magellan, etc.) and used to bemoan the fact that there was "nothing new" to explore on this earth now. Heh - stupid teenagers, they think they know everything.

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    1. It's amazing, isn't it? I guess it just proves people are people but it certainly shatters illusions!

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  6. Memoirs, autobiographies, diaries and letters are ALWAYS high on my go-to list. Biographies too when they are the only option.
    I love the real snippets from amazing lives. So different, so similar.

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    1. I started reading Davy Crockett's memoirs last night. Certainly is a colorful writer!!!

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  7. I like to read memoirs too. Right now I'm reading an advance reader copy of Patient H.M. I teach psychology so I love this sort of stuff.

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    1. I am not familiar with that but I'm always interested in anything that has to do with psychology.

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  8. You've written about the memoirs with such passion, I have to check them out. It's interesting to see which of those you listed drew you in and which were sort of, eh.

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    1. A lot has to do with the use of language and also the stories they tell. I love it when they tell stories that show how very human and real they are as regular people.

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  9. This is so interesting and relevant, Kathleen, having recently attended a workshop on The Art of Memoir at the Cork Literary Festival because I'm working on a book about my years in Fiji. :)

    Susan at
    Travel, Fiction and Photos

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    1. I think your memoir sounds so exciting. Fiji has always seemed so alluring to me.

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  10. Reading their actual words makes them come alive. Sherman's actual words in his telegrams to Grant gave me chills. War is indeed hell if it means going out of your way to kill children and women who had no say in the actions of their fathers and husbands.

    I will go get the autobiography of Teddy to listen him to talk about his world. :-)

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    1. Sherman was a very strange person. As a young man he was very popular for having a great personality and being full of mischief. He graduated 6th in his class from West Point and would have been 4th if he hadn't had so many demerits--mostly for talking in class and pulling pranks. But after the War started and his son died he turned very dark. It would be fascinating to do a psychological profile of him.

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  11. I'm going to have to look for some of those books. Personally, I have a thing for John Adams. Mostly because my mom found him fascinating and used to talk about him all the time. Those things stay with us and even shape our futures. Like you I enjoy reading first hand accounts, it rounds the people out, makes them more human, rather than the caricatures we see in history classes.

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    1. That's a good description of them being rounded out instead of caricatures. I just love reading their little anecdotes about themselves, too.

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  12. I've become much more of a history reader, too. I'm really like how narrative a lot of history books have become, really letting you into the story of the people and their motivations, rather than just their actions.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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    1. That's true. Have you read BURR? I highly recommend it.

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  13. I should be reading these. Thank you for sharing! A documentary about Ulysses S. Grant writing on his deathbed to support his family really moved me. Memoirs really do make mythic beings real. It's amusing that Ben Franklin complained about snow so much.

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    1. Franklin was about as funny as you would expect him to be--he certainly was horny! I'll have to look for that documentary. I have a serious history-geek crush on Grant.

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  14. I have some old love letters a friend found at a flea market. The people weren't noteworthy or famous, but reading their words made them and their time real. Their story was inspiring. Nice to meet you!

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    1. That would be interesting. Several times I've bought hand-written recipe books at flea markets and yard sales and they are always so interesting, too.

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  15. I have been trying to listen (that's what I do in the gym) to all of Mark Twain's stories and in his autobiography he tells about working with Grant.

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    1. I imagine he did. I just bought a book called GRANT AND TWAIN so I'm looking forward to that.

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  16. curiosity is best gift one got from his creator without it he would be lost in nothingness

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    1. That's very true. Curiosity is such a gift.

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