Granularity of history

Since last weekend was the Thanksgiving holiday, I got to spend some time with my family. We spend a lot of that time sitting around, just talking. I don’t know how it is with your family, but sometimes the menfolk in ours have a little trouble getting a story in edgewise between me and my two sisters and mom.

But at one point last weekend, my Dad was all wound up about this show he’d been watching on The History Channel called The Men Who Built America. I hadn’t seen the show (although by the end of the weekend I had watched several episodes from Dad’s DVR!), but he was excitedly telling us all about it.

This in and of itself was rather exciting to me, because my dad is an engineering/technical type, and I have not often seen him chatter excitedly about history stuff the way he might about something with capacitors.

Anyway, Dad was giving us the details The Men Who Built America, which is a multi-part story about the interwoven lives (and fortunes) of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Ford, and Morgan.

Finally, at one point, he exclaimed that it was all really interesting, and he had never heard most of this before, although he had heard of all the people involved. He was fascinated at how the show really plumbed the details of those men’s lives, really digging deep into everything to develop the series.

And that’s the really neat thing about history. Most people will only ever learn just a surface-scratch of all the history that’s actually out there to be learned.

I don’t happen to have an American history survey course textbook on hand, but I’d be willing to bet most of them would only spend a few paragraphs talking about Rockefeller, etc., mostly as a side note to a greater concept regarding the Gilded Age or monopolies. Whereas there is actually tons more stuff (interesting stuff) that could be said about them, even more than what that mini-series can tell you in several hours.

What do you think history is made of? Sure, in the books it’s made up of broad strokes and grand, sweeping concepts. There’s that. But what are those made up of? The words, actions, and ideas of people. All kinds of people. Rich and powerful people like John D. Rockefeller…and ordinary people like pioneers, Civil War soldiers, immigrants. That’s all history, too, of course.

The broad strokes of history are made up of teeny, tiny pieces of…life. Think of it sort of like the top part of an hour-glass. Most people see only the pile of sand. But if you want to look closely enough — the grains are there. Teeny, tiny, individual little grains of history that make up “the sands of time.”

“a drop in the ocean” by conskeptical, on Flickr (Used in accordance with the stated Ceative Commons license)

The grains could be actions, events, people, documents. In most cases, the grains, the details…they’re out there. Sure, much has been lost, but there is SO MUCH that has been saved and preserved. If you really want to “dive in” to the history of any topic, odds are, there is an archives out there with something you’d find interesting (i.e., documents with delightfully intricate details you’ve probably never heard before).

Trust me. I’m an archivist. The grains of history are sort of my thing.


2 responses to “Granularity of history

  1. Australian Musician Seona McDowell tells the story of how the Sydney Opera House was built. It is not the engineers or the architect that BUILD great buildings, but the masons, and carpenters, and other workers – each with their own story of how it was built. All history is personal to the ones who live it.

  2. Lisa,

    I enjoyed this. I believe this is why local history is so fascinating. I posed the question a couple years ago in a book review, “Is national history actually numerous pieces of local or regional history that are cohesively strung together to form the whole? Or perhaps, local history is really national history on a small scale?” As you rightly point out, when you dig into history there are so many grains out there upon which events turn or change course.


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