April 26, 2012

Historic Demolition

A brief update on an earlier story...

After a year-long delay, the former SAU 65 building on New London's Main Street was demolished and trucked off to a landfill. Before the Kearsarge Regional School District acquired the building, it had served as a restaurant and as the town's first place of Catholic worship. Learn more from Catholic Heritage, posted here last April.

Demolition of the former SAU 65 / Our Lady of Fatima Church - April 26, 2012

April 17, 2012

The Future of History

Rev. Jeremy Belknap's History of New-Hampshire, 1784.
His second volume was not published until 1792.  
Every fifty years or so, the Town Archives is charged with producing another installment of the published history of New London, New Hampshire. From planning to production, this monumental task takes five years or more. The most recent edition was printed in 2000. So, without a looming deadline, we can contemplate the uncertain future of the printed book, and we can only imagine how the town history of 2050 might appear. Will an edited version of our local history exist? Will researchers simply cull from myriad primary sources whatever meets their search criteria? Will the authoritative history of the future be created dynamically by successive generations—an open-ended, on-line collaboration? It's not only possible but likely.

We will miss the printed volumes. The Archives collects local histories printed on heavy paper and bound in the traditional fashion. We especially like those early- and mid-19th century histories, authored by a local minister on the occasion of some anniversary. Over time, their structure became formulaic: volume one containing the narrative of events, sometimes chronological, sometimes thematic, and documenting a town's government, industry, and civic institutions; volume two presenting the genealogy of settlers and residents. But voice and contents vary. Some contain humor and anecdotes and other surprises. Many contain a necrology, memorializing those citizens remarkable for their longevity or for tragic, shocking, or horrific deaths. As chronicled by Rev. Nathaniel Bouton in his History of Concord, New Hampshire (1856), the number of drownings, accidental or otherwise, in the Merrimack River is astonishing today.

One avid reader of local and regional histories was Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts. Traveling by train to visit a destitute Bronson Alcott, then living rent-free in Walpole, New Hampshire, Thoreau consulted his New England Gazetteer and reflected on local histories in his journal entry of September 10, 1856.
When the water [near Bellow's Falls] is lowest, it is contracted to sixteen feet here, and Peter's, an old history of Connecticut, says it was so condensed that you could not thrust a crowbar into it. It did me good to read his wholesale hearty statements,—strong, living, human speech, so much better than the emasculated modern histories, like Bancroft's and the rest, cursed with a style. I would rather read such histories, though every sentence were a falsehood, than our dull emasculated reports which bear the name of histories. The former, having a human breath and interest behind them, are nearer to nature and to truth, after all. The historian is required to feel a human interest in his subject and to so express it.
Thoreau's then-private journal was not lacking his trademark hyperbole. Many of those "modern" histories from the mid-1800s were indeed rote affairs, devoid of character. Many were "dull" sermons. But not all. Some were both factual and engaging for the glimpse of the bygone era they provide the modern reader.

Over the past few months, news media have highlighted at least three instances in which facts have been reshaped into falsehoods—calling Thoreau's bluff. First, an article published in The Believer magazine painted a bleak portrait of depravity and suicide in Las Vegas. Facts were altered for stylistic effect: names changed, dates shifted, and places moved. Author John D'Agata, a creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, insisted that an "essay" is not subject to journalistic standards of fact-checking. The second was a Disney production, Newsies the Musical. Based on an actual newsboy strike in 1899, many details were altered or conflated for dramatic effect. The New York Times quoted playwright Harvey Fierstein: "But facts are not what drama is." The third was the monologue entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Author Mike Daisey tried to explain: "I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater[,] that when people hear the story in those terms[,] that we have different languages for what the truth means."

From within their creative worlds, none of these authors felt constrained by historical facts, and all seemed surprised when reviewers criticized their presentations as misleading or manipulative. But even the most fact-checked, academic history is written from the distinct perspective of a researcher/author. Early town histories were no different; the historical texts produced by ministers differed from those of politicians or businessmen in their subject focus and rhetorical style. By the close of the 19th century, however, many towns published the collective work of committees. Lacking a consistent human voice and following a rigid protocol, the books certainly would have elicited Thoreau's contempt. And what of the on-line, wiki-generated history of the future? Over the coming decade we may learn what forms it might take. Meanwhile, the Archives will continue collecting both the historical facts and the "hearty statements" needed to create our next local history.

  • "The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist." New York Times February 21, 2012.
  • "Read All About It! Kids Vex Titans!" New York Times March 2, 2012.
  • "Mike Daisey Apologizes for Falsehoods in Monologue About Apple." New York Times March 26, 2012.
  • Torrey and Allen, ed. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Vols. VIII–XIV. New York: Dover, 1962.