Monday, July 4, 2011

American History

I love history.  I studied it once upon a time in college.  Now I teach it.  Talk about a challenge...

For me history is, well, the story.  It's how people lived during good times and bad, peace and war, economic booms and devastating depressions.  It's how the family unit interacted, what people did to survive, how technology changed day to day life and social behavior.

It is not this for many (most?) people.  Most people, including my students, consider history to be this terribly dull subject full of dates, names, and rich people they don't care about.  So toward the end of the school year I decided to make it personal.  I printed out a copy of an old newspaper so that my students could read the news from the day after my grandmother was born - there was an article about Italy joining World War I and a local interest story about a survivor from the Lusitania sinking.  I printed my great-grandfather's draft card from 1917.  I brought in another newspaper article: a short story on my great-grandmother, and how five of her sons were enlisted in World War II.

After telling an anecdotal story, leading into another history topic, one of my students interrupted me.  "Ms. B,  how come your family is so interesting?"

"It's not any more interesting than any of your families."

"Yeah it is, you have all these stories about how your family was around for all this stuff that happened."

A-ha.  And that's where I catch them.  They all have family who were around for "all this stuff that happened," they just don't know the stories.  But even if they can't or won't track down the stories, what did happen in class was suddenly they remembered what the big deal was with the Lusitania because of "Ms. B's grandma." They figured out that Pearl Harbor was a big deal because "Ms. B's grandpa and all his brothers signed up the next day."

And all that got me thinking some more.  I've been researching genealogy since my mom passed away in November.  Since then, I've found an amazing amount of information through birth records, census data, newspaper articles, death records, and more.  As a person who spent most of her academic life studying history, it was an informaganza of personal connections to the history of the United States.  I've found stories and records of ancestors hitting on almost any topic of study in US history that leaps to mind.  We've got Jamestown settlers, Revolutionary War veterans, War of 1812 veterans, early pioneers in the Westward Expansion, Free-Soilers, anti-Free-Soilers, slave-owners (ugh), California 49ers, Confederate Civil War veterans, Union Civil War veterans, successful cattle ranchers, cattle ranchers who lost everything in the depression of the 1870s, late 19th century Italian immigrants, tin mill workers, grocers on the run from the Mafia, covered wagon pioneers of the Oregon Trail, a disgraced local politician, a lieutenant governor of Texas, a preacher during the Great Awakening, Hoover supporters (both Herbert and J. Edgar), and socialists, World War I veterans, people who dropped out of college during the Great Depression to keep the family afloat, World War II veterans, and much more.

Maybe I've been reading too much Bill Bryson, maybe I'm too much an admirer of the late Howard Zinn, but I want to write a book.  A personal history of the United States.  My family might not be any more "interesting" than my students' families, or your families, but their lives make up a story of what the heck happened in this country since before it even was a country.  It's the story of people in times and places where they did what they needed with the materials available to survive and raise their families.  And it just so happens that their lives coincide with the major events we're all supposed to remember from school.  Or, hey, even some not-so-major events that just lend some color and context to the time.

Would you read something like that?

1 comment:

Boomer said...

Yes I would. The best historical accounts -- or at least, the ones that stick with you -- are the ones that are pinned to personal stories of someone's experiences, as you demonstrated in class.

History is people, and the circumstances that shaped their lives. It's nothing but personal.

But it'll help if you can find a hook for your story, or some kind of structure for it aside from the chronological. A theme, a journey across the generations, something.