The long comment by "Superfluous Man" to my most recent post is just fascinating. There are, I suspect, huge numbers of such stories about people who do not rise to the level of historically significant actors, but who lived rich, complex, interesting lives nonetheless. I often think about how desperately historians of the Middle Ages would love to get their hands on anything like these accounts, offering a detailed picture of the lives of common people in the eleventh or twelfth century. Eileen Power wrote a little book in 1924 called "Medieval People: The Story of Six Ordinary Lives in the Middle Ages," that very successfully did just that.
Our personal memories and connections take us back about a century -- to the lives of our grandparents. I am seventy-eight, and I knew my father's mother and father, who were born in 1878 and 1879, so I am connected directly with life one hundred thirty years ago. Beyond that, I must rely on documents, if they exist.
I wrote the two books about my parents and grandparents so that my own grandchildren would know something about their great great grandparents. When little Athena and Samuel are my age, they will be able to read about the doings of Barney and Ella almost two hundred years earlier.
I have one piece of advice for any of you who are fortunate enough to have collections of family papers and pictures: Take a few moments to identify the people in the pictures with notes on the back, while there is still someone alive who actually knows who they were. Along with all the letters and papers, I inherited shoe boxes full of pictures. Some are of people contemporaneous with me -- my uncles and aunts and cousins -- and I can quite easily identify them. But my mother, who knew whom everyone was from an earlier era, neglected to identify them on the backs of the photos. Now, after sorting them all into piles by family, I am left with several big manila envelopes labelled "unknown."
I know this all must seem like the maundering of an old man, but each of us lives for such a brief moment and then is gone -- how nice to be able to keep ourselves alive in the memories of others for at least a little time.
It is possible, of course, that the Internet will fundamentally change our collective historical memory. Since digital storage space seems to expand even faster than the flood of content that fills it, we may have now entered a time when all these personal stories and pictures will take on something akin to immortality. I cringe at the thought of the task facing future historians as they struggle to manage this sea of data.