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November 2002 · Historically Speaking23 The Past Perfect, or Understanding History Stanley Sandler In die midst ofdie Civil War, a little volume entided The Last Men ofthe Revolution diverted Americans by chronicling die lives ofdie last livingveterans ofdie War for Independence.1 The book treated these old soldiers as antediluvians who had survived to witness the "modern age" of railroads, ironclads, the telegraph, and die unprecedented social, political, and economic challenges of the 1860s. But The Last Men of the Revolution can tell us more about the American Civil War tiian about die American Revolution. When we write history, we often compare the past widi our own era. And if we resist the temptation, our readers are certain to draw die comparisons diemselves. Like die audiors of The Last Men of the Revolution, we often define as relevant historical scholarship thatwhich uses die past to speak to die present, even when we know the people who lived the history we write obviously did not see themselves simply as precursors to our time. This hardly counts as a novel observation. Perceptive historians know, for example, diat such recreated slices of die past as Colonial Williamsburg are viewed through the distorting prism of the present. Visitors to today's pristine historical reconstructions need notfearvermin, filth, slavery, or the hazard of being roasted over a slow fire by marauding Indians. Historians might complicate diis observation by pointing out diat die 17th and 18th centuries were basically unconcerned widi flies and slavery. When we consider meticulously recreated historic communities, military reenactments , or carefully restored technologies such as antique aircraft or automobiles, we might conclude diat historical restorations, like historical scholarship, fascinate us because diey provide context and points of origin for die present in which we live. We fix upon the giant radial piston engines, leaking oil by die quart; or the non counter-sunk rivets of a World War II B-17; or the gold-thread upholstery and soaring tail fins of a 1958 DeSoto. By recognizing and recreating diese details, we feel diat diese artifacts can give us some insight into our past. We know diat diese restorations represent a history that serves the needs and desires of the present. But we must recognize diat, in dieir times, diey were anything but antique—again, a fairly obvious observation . Yet this insight is hard to sustain. Radier, we persist in our inability to view, for example, a Model A Ford widi the eyes of 1927, which would have seen it as somediing wonderfully advanced and modern, a symbol of"The New Age." For us, die Model A Ford or the 1958 DeSoto are embedded almost inextricably in dieir times. Historians can well sympadiize with die frustration of one of Randall Jarrell's characters as he viewed a daguerreotype of a 19th-century battlefield: [W]e look at an old photograph and feel that the people in it must surely have some intimation of how old-fashioned diey were. We feel this even when die photograph is a photograph of corpses strewn in dieir old-fashioned uniforms along an old-fashioned trench.2 Is it possible, dien, to interpret die past widiout die expectations and preconceptions of die present? The late Barbara Tuchman thought that she might have come close when she claimed diat she wrote "as of die time widiout using die benefit ofhindsight, resisting always die temptation to refer to events still ahead."' The effort is admirable and no doubt necessary , but even the most determined can never achieve a completely blank slate. A far more attainable solution to the problem of historical interpretation lies in the past's past, what I would term the "past perfect ." Every point in history, obviously, had its own history to shape it. Egypt's pyramids once glistened new and white in the sun, and there was a time when Stonehenge must have been considered die work ofdie "younger generation ." Beowulf, die earliest surviving intact literary work from die Anglo-Saxon period, was once fresh, and more than one stanza harks back to earlier times: Then was song and revel The aged Scylding [Dane] From well-stored mind Spoke much of die past. Yet what in die...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 23-25
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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