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Subject: "I must remember this..."     Previous Topic | Next Topic
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Conferences Eyrie Miscellaneous Topic #330
Reading Topic #330
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Jan-02-17, 01:10 PM (EST)
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"I must remember this..."
   ... for the next time I am confronted with that wearisome old student-occupier, "What is history?", in a class.

[Describing his childhood fascination with a British nautical magazine called Colburn's United Service Magazine, which was filled with a combination of "weightier matters" and heavily embellished nautical reminiscences.]

Any one who has attempted to write history knows what queer nuggets of useful information lie hidden away in such papers; how they often help to reconstruct an incident, or determine a mooted point. If the Greeks, after the Peloponnesian war, had had a Colburn's, we should have a more certain, if not a perfect, clew to the reconstruction of the trireme; and probably even could deduce with some accuracy the daily routine, the several duties, and hear the professional jokes and squabbles, of their officers and crews. The serious people who write history can never fill the place of the gossips, who pour out an unpremeditated mixture of intimate knowledge and idle trash.

Trash? Upon the whole is not the trash the truest history? perhaps not the most valuable, but the most real? If you want contemporary color, contemporary atmosphere, you must seek it among the impressions which can be obtained only from those who have lived a life amid particular surroundings, which they breathe and which colors them—dyes them in the wool. However skilless, they cannot help reproducing, any more than water poured from an old ink-bottle can help coming out more or less black.

- Capt. A.T. Mahan, USN (ret.)
Preface to From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life, 1907

Alfred Thayer Mahan (who was actually promoted to rear admiral, post-retirement, the year before the book was published, but for some reason they didn't change the title page) may be known to some readers as one of the late 19th century's most influential naval strategists—notwithstanding the awkward fact that, put into actual practice after his death, most of his biggest ideas turned out to be wrong, or at least unusefully obsolete by the time they were tried out.

Regardless, he was, and also a naval historian of considerable note (indeed, his strategic ideas were largely informed by his studies of naval history, which may be why they were so rapidly out of date), and—as this passage shows—was sort of unwittingly onto one of the central ideas of what would later become fashionable as "social history" decades before it was cool. Not the much-maligned-in-some-circles statistical part, but the view-from-the-street part. All right, the reminiscences of naval officers are not exactly "voice of the voiceless" territory, but still, the premise that you have to look at documents depicting what life was like from the perspective of people who were living it is on point, and was fairly well ahead of its time in 1906. Historiography in 1906 was still very firmly in the Great Deeds of Great Men mold.

Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.

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