History Lessons

This column, the last one I will write in 2003, is my Christmas gift to myself. It has nothing to do with news watching. In fact, it has nothing to do with the present. It is 653 words in praise of time gone by.

I probably spend more of my off-duty hours reading history than engaging in any other activity.  (Actually, I have spent a lot of time in the past few years writing history; many of you know about my book, "The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol.")

The attractions of the past are many. For one thing, to learn what happened long ago is to comprehend what is happening right now with much more acuity than is otherwise possible. No one, for example, can truly understand the Middle East today without knowing of the decisions that were made about that part of the globe after World War II. And no one can truly understand those decisions without going back even further.

For another thing, and one that seems almost to contradict the first, the past makes a wonderful refuge from the present and its dins and demands. Think of reading a work of history as a vacation: a conventional vacation offers only a change of place; on the other hand, to open Laurence Bergreen’s new account of Magellan’s voyages (search), "Over the Edge of the World," is to alter one’s time as well as place.

Which is to say that history is able to perform the remarkable feat of making the present both more intelligible and more irrelevant, of holding it right up to our noses and hiding it around the most distant corner.

History makes a wonderful escape not only from the present, but from the journalism that so painstakingly -- and often painfully -- chronicles it. “The past,” writes the British essayist and critic Max Beerbohm (search), “is a work of art, free from irrelevancies and loose ends. There are, for our vision, comparatively few people in it, and all of them are interesting people.  . . .  And in the past there is so blessedly nothing for us to worry about. Everything is settled. There is nothing to be done about it--nothing but to contemplate it and blandly form theories about this or that aspect from it.”

Among American presidents, there was no greater theory former than Harry Truman (search), who became history’s student at an early age. Listen to this memory from Truman’s childhood friend, Harry Chiles:

“I remember one time we were playing...Jesse James or robbers, and we were the Dalton Brothers out in Kansas...and we were arguing about them.  Harry came by -- we got the history mixed up ourselves -- but Harry straightened it out, just who were the Dalton brothers and how many got killed. Things like that the boys had a lot of respect for . . .”

Harry Truman was serious about history even when the history was play.

It was the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (search) who said that life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward; and this is why, even though one might be playing with history, he cannot help but reap serious benefits. It is why, even though we may use history as an escape, we cannot help but be brought closer to the truer meanings of our own times.

So, in the year ahead, when Michael Jackson is too much with you, when Kobe Bryant seems the only name you read in the paper and Scott Peterson’s the only one you hear on television, remember Magellan’s perilous voyage. (Or, dare I say, remember "The Spirits of America.")  Tales of the Past will not only help you get away; they will enable you to return to the present both refreshed and informed.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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