Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memorial Day

[posted by Callimachus]

Memorial Day should have remained May 30, without reference to day of the week. I like the national end-of-May holiday weekend; I celebrate it like everyone else. But it's not Memorial Day.

If you want an example of how the holiday has gone fuzzy, read one of the many blog posts and even media columns on this Memorial Day devoted to honoring veterans and living servicemen. That's a proper thing to do, of course, and there is Veterans' Day, if you want only one day to do it. But that day is not Memorial Day.

Memorial Day should remain as it was in the beginning, at least in the places where I've studied it. The encyclopedia stories focus on the first civic celebrations, which paints a wrong picture. The old Decoration Day was a time for soldiers to gather in town and walk out to the gravesites of fallen comrades and remember them as they saw fit, and say fitting words among themselves, then come home again.

Once the civilians got involved, it became something else. We still lack the thing it once was. Few words are sure to fall more flat or miss the mark more widely than the florid oratory of a local politician at a Memorial Day event. After the 272-word Gettysburg Address, what more is left for a civilian to say?

Families of the fallen need no day set aside for remembrance. They have the birthday, the wedding day, the day the troop train left the station, the day the telegram from the War Department came -- they have every day they draw breath.

The rest of us should just stand back today and say little and try in some impossible way to understand what it was to be him, or her. And what it means to be those who shared the experience but lived.

This was a little heartwarmer for me today. A professional historian pays proper tribute to the amateur:

I don't think there's a good word for what Mr. Hall did: "researcher" is too dry, "historical investigator" carries hints of melodrama, and "archivist" suggests a dutiful drudge, which Mr. Hall was not. "Amateur historian" probably fits best, though it sounds vaguely derivative and second-tier. Following a career with the Labor Department--he retired in the early 1970s--Mr. Hall turned himself into the world's foremost authority on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Historians, pros and amateurs alike, sought him out for his knowledge and access to his exhaustive files. As one of them put it, James O. Hall knew more about Lincoln's murder than anyone who ever lived, including John Wilkes Booth.

I probably have too much education to be considered an "amateur," but certainly not enough to claim to be a "professional." What I do mostly is history with a little "h." It's not my primary source of income. Big "H" historians write biographies of generals. Little "h" historians publish correspondences of corporals.

Big "H" historians write about "why did the French Revolution happen" and try to come up with a different answer than the previous generation believed. Little "h" historians become experts in the eccentric script and shorthand of 18th century French parish clerks. The French Revolution will have a different cause 20 years from now, when the next generation of graduate students gets its grants lined up and its word processors plugged in. But those parish records will be there forever, and either you can read them properly or you can't. Those big names who tackle the French Revolution know well their debt to the man who can guide them through the archives, or can spot an obvious error in your thesis based on a minor but telling detail.

I know my debt to them; I acknowledge it in every book preface I write. But, like I said, I'm as often in the little "h" camp. You pick your specialties carefully, if you're a little "h" historian. You wouldn't bother staking out a turf that's already been claimed. I've got nothing so dramatic as the Lincoln assassination to my credit, but it's been worth the trouble of a BBC crew to cross the Atlantic to walk around the countryside with me and interview me on the topic of Welsh settlement in America in the 1600s, and I've discovered or proved some hitherto-unnoticed details about the role of the Know-Nothing Party in the rise of the Republicans in the 1850s.

It's small beer. Like growing the biggest pumpkins in your hometown or winning a blue ribbon in a goat-milking contest (like my prima donna princess-y Italian ex-girlfriend did once, to everyone's amazement). It won't get you into any clubs. But there are moments when you wouldn't trade it for anything.

For me, it comes when I manage to boost someone from my little "h" into big "H." After my young teen-age Bruce Catton enthusiasm, I never was much of a Civil War buff. I studied medieval and European history in college. But afterward, the blue and gray kept coming back to me. Partly because the place I settled and worked sat atop a trove of archival material that never had been published. So I started to dig, and when I had mastered it, I began to write it. I distilled that meticulous county-level record-keeping, and those packets of crumbling letters and diaries from the astoundingly literate Quaker lieutenants (and the semi-literate, but gloriously expressive, farm hand privates) into a book that told the war through their eyes, their stories.

My own books have never been on anyone's best-seller lists, and probably no more than a few thousand ever have read that one. But the book is in the libraries of research universities and on the shelves of professional historians whose names you know. I know that because they sometimes write to me, and I occasionally find myself footnoted in their big-selling tomes.

And when I track the footnotes back to the page references, there I find -- not me, but the boys born 120 years before me who never made it to 25, who rotted in the Virginia sun, whom I came to know while they lived, in the magical suspended time in a sterile county archive basement. Their names, their words, their stories. In the 200-somethingth retelling of the Battle of Fredericksburg, by one of the most famous living historians, their lives now take their place with the others that have been told in print. The camera pauses on their faces among the dense ranks. They are, somehow, less dead than they were yesterday. If that's all that comes of my research, that's enough.