Being Historical

What is historical? My wife laments that she decided not to brave the crowds and traffic jams to see President Obama sworn in: that would have been to make history. To stay home in the comfort of one’s kitchen and watch it on the television—that’s not historical. Why not? Because everybody could do it. You saw him better than you would have if you’d been half a mile away. Yes, she says, but I wasn’t there. Only there isn’t as close as the television cameras, but in a place where you shared the air with him. But don’t we share the air with him even now, thirty miles away in Annapolis? Or thousands? In what way is the cup of tea and the fact of the tablecloth, what went on in this house on this day, less historical than being part of a crowd at this one event? All happened.

The question of what constitutes history was re-visited by the Annales school of history in the l950s: history is the little people, not a story of Great Men. Tolstoy spent scores of pages at the end of War and Peace defending the same idea. But even here the notion is that the sum total of many Little Men is greater than Great Men: no Little Man in him- or herself is supposed to be greater than the Great Man, or more historical, only, in a Marxist sense, collectively. My issue is quite different. How is me sitting with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table and a book not historical? It happened. How is taking part in the Battle of Gettysburg more historical than being gunned down on the streets of an inner-city war zone? Or an obscure battle of a sideline skirmish with no name? That precisely, people would say, is the difference: the history books can’t talk about everything, so what they talk about is historical.

Last fall we took our boys to see the battlefield at Gettysburg, one of the most “historic” places in America. It’s one of the fabled places of American, and military, history. It was the military turning point of the Civil War, the visitor’s center film tells the viewer, echoing the verdict of history, the “high water mark of the Confederacy”—the image is that of a flood, a river that has overflowed its natural low-lying banks and so becomes lethal, waters that are meant to be much lower than they have become and in any case must, having risen, fall. This image, repeated over and over—one of the stops on the battlefield is called the High-Water Mark, where the Union troops, on the heights of Little Round Top, mowed down and broke the back of (metaphors abound when conceptualizing battles) Pickett’s Charge—though Pickett was the general and so did not himself charge. Had it succeeded, the historians suggest, the South would probably have won the battle, and Washington, D.C. would have been open to them: the South might well have won its independence.

So this is the central battle of a central war—not to mention an extremely bloody one, with more than 7,000 dead or wounded. The photographs of the bodies in the Wheatfield—the only wheat field, the animated guide voice on the CD my wife bought in the visitor center shop and that interpreted what we saw as we drove from stop one to stop two and on to fourteen on the fall-struck battlefield—that’s spelled with a capital letter; it’s not merely a wheat field but The Wheatfield—are known to many schoolchildren, the most famous being Sullivan’s “The Harvest of Death”—though the battle, which raged from 1-3 July 1863, was too early for a harvest of any other kind.

And what was central about this war? Americans understand it “saved the Union,” once again a conceptualization from the point of view of the victor, as all history is said to be told. More astute historians, as the well-done wall texts in the new visitor center museum summarize, see the Civil War as having been written into the foundation documents of the nation, a half-slave-based, half-slave-free country divided into the units of states which had retained a good deal of their individual power. The compromises necessary to founding the country, they suggest, couldn’t last forever. The spark was the expansion into the West, with the question central to the election of l860, won by Abraham Lincoln, being whether they would be brought in as slave or non-slave states; the implication is that without this planned expansion westwards the uneasy compromise based on the power of the individual states to set their own laws on such matters would have held—until when? There no one speculates. Still it came to a head in the secession movement and the foundation of the Confederate States of America, and so to war.

So a war that determined the course of the country, written into the earliest foundation documents—could people only have read between the lines, or done anything about it if they had been able to; a battle that had marked the turning point of the war, itself one of the bloodiest battles of a bloody war (Antietam saw the single most lethal day in American battle history, and so is much visited as well)—all of it makes Gettysburg central, and explains the fact that so many people visit.

The most central battle of the central event of the century, fundamental to the existence of the country and implied in its very founding, the turning point, euologized by one of the two greatest US Presidents: the claim of Gettysburg to being a must-see destination is gilt-edged. This, clearly, is history.

What’s not history? Apparently all the rest of life. No one would travel from Maine to Pennsylvania to see a wheat field, rather than the Wheatfield. No one would make a day trip, except out of desperation, to look at a place where a battle had happened if everything around were scenes of battles—as is to a much greater extent the case in, say, France, where the l00 years war raged far and wide. Even a battlefield is old hat: it has to be a particular battle that decided the fate of nations, the bloodier the better—just as people go to Washington to look at one of the Largest Blue Diamonds In the World, the Hope Diamond, which is hardly as large as a walnut: most people probably don’t know that blue is good rare as opposed to defective, so this blue diamond is smaller than many white ones. A showcase nearby the Hope Diamond shows the rainbow effect of a CD as a way of illustration the light refraction through jewels: it’s arguably as pretty as any king’s ransom set of jewels. Only we all have these.

Gettysburg is the Hope Diamond of battlefields, made accessible because it was so recent in absolute terms, and so something that has been preserved uninterruptedly. Marathon is an empty plain; Normandy is real beaches (though with some degree of battlefield cachet); most battlefields of the World Wars in Europe were needed for subsequent development, and are in any case too numerous. But in America there have not been many battles, and there is space. The result is a historical spot.

The Hope Diamond is historical; my wife’s engagement ring is not: everyone in a certain class has one of those. A clump of peach trees down the road is not historical; The Peach Orchard (assuming it is written in capital letters) is. An obscure battle of a meaningless war is not historical, Gettysburg is.

Yet the individual could have been the same in both. How do we know whether what we are doing is historical or not? The CD suggested that the men who fought that day knew the importance of what they did. Or is this only meaningful in retrospect? Surely many people have thought that what they were doing was historical, only to be outvoted by history? What actor in a movie can say for sure that the movie is destined for greatness or the dustbin? Surely Oswald Mosley thought of himself as historical, certainly Adolf Hitler did: the first now seems ridiculous, and Hitler a great Fehlgeburt of history, not its legitimate inheritor.

But is there no pattern to what people say is valuable, or of historic interest? Can we, without waiting for the verdict of history or the view of other people, say that something is important (say, the Battle of Gettysburg) or valuable (say, the Hope diamond)? Surely we can have intimations, as the soldiers at Gettysburg are said to have realized how important what they were doing was. If we had to wait until we had the verdict of others, we’d never have art appraisers, who can say that something is a good example of X (worth a million monetary units) rather than a bad one (worth 100). We’d never have the sense of soldiers that they were taking part in an Important Battle.

But who’s to say that the soldiers in what turned out to be a minor skirmish—who equally fought and died—didn’t feel the same? Their opinions simply don’t valorize the verdict of history, and so are rejected and forgotten, and never quoted. Certainly everybody with Grandpa’s old violin up in the attic thinks he has a Stradivarius.