Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, April 26, 2012

THE COMMENT BY "SUPERFLUOUS MAN"

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.

7 comments:

Aaron Baker said...

" . . . people who do not rise to the level of historically significant actors, but who lived rich, complex, interesting lives nonetheless."

Maybe how one defines "historically significant" needs tweaking. The miller Menocchio, in Carlo Ginzburg's excellent The Cheese and the Worms, was seen by Ginzburg as historically significant--and I found it easy to agree with him.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sure. The whole point of the post is that all those lives are historically significant from one point of view. But I was obviously referring to the people whom historians consider significant. Also, some people's papers get kept and archived while other people's papers do not. I have an elaborately filed and organized archive of my family papers, but no university is going to want to accept it as a gift and put it in the library.

Superfluous Man said...

Thanks for reading his story. I feel sure he was the most honorable man among our family and it is sad his life had to end in tragedy. I used to get an elderly man to tell me stories about farm life in the South and he would just go on and on. And I kept it up by asking him questions. He had all kinds of interesting comments about his past, the German soldiers who were prisoners of war who worked on his farm, the SS men who you could identity because of those conspicuous tattoos and how he came to regard them as "mean", plowing with a mule, having to miss college and though he sister got to go, because of the "Hoover" days he got his learning at "Hutto college" (a neighboring farm where he worked) and how learned the business, dabbing molasses on each bowl of his cotton to keep the boll weevil off it. You are correct. Much of our history goes unrecorded. I would talk with the farmer at a country store and the store owner kept telling me to "use a tape recorder". And I just did it because it was interesting and I wanted to have stories to tell to others so I never got the recordings done. Yes, there are so many fascinating, rich stories from our past. I have a friend who says "you have more stories than anyone I've ever met". So I appreciate the compliment that you found that story with a sad ending interesting. But I know that many people have many more stories than I do. I know I should write them mine down for posterity. I have no children but I have many nieces and nephews Not doing so is in a way selfish I suppose. Humans often believe if the stories are theirs, no one else would be interested.

And I understand what you mean about historically significant. Most of what we know about the distant past was not about the less privileged but of the privileged. Studs Terkel's people is who you are talking about, which means most of us.

LFC said...

Based on his comments, I think Superfluous Man might be interested in Scott Sandage's Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, which focuses on the 19th cent. and draws on personal letters, diaries etc. (I have not read it -- I'm just going by the description on Amazon.)

Aaron Baker said...

I think you may be underestimating the capacity of historians to find something, or someone, significant. A cache of documents illuminating the lives of "ordinary" socialists 100 years ago may be very interesting to some historians--and a university might be happy to have your archive. Don't sell it (or the historical imagination) short.

Aaron Baker said...

I think you may be underestimating the capacity of historians to find something, or someone, significant. A cache of documents illuminating the lives of "ordinary" socialists 100 years ago may be very interesting to some historians--and a university might be happy to have your archive. Don't sell it (or the historical imagination) short.

LFC said...

To follow up on Aaron Baker's comment, there's the Tamiment Library at NYU, which I don't know a whole lot about except that its focus is history of radical movements and the labor movement.