The mirror of history
I’m often struck by how the arc of history often seems remarkably short. Particularly as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed how important historical events or eras that I’ve thought of as being remote from each other are often more closely linked than I might have imagined.
After all, if you line up end to end just three life spans of 80 years each, you get back to the year 1773. Some older people today remember meeting Civil War veterans and former slaves and remember where they were when they learned that Lindbergh had “made it!”
A wonderful example comes from a memoir by Alger Hiss’s son, Tony, entitled “The View from Alger’s Window.” Alger Hiss was a lawyer and an official at the State Department and the United Nations; he and his family summered in Peacham. In 1948 he was accused of being a Soviet spy and later convicted of perjury in relation to that allegation. It was that investigation led by a young member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities named Richard Nixon that first brought Nixon to national attention.
As a young lawyer, Alger Hiss had clerked for the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Holmes had been wounded three times in the Civil War; decades later, in a speech describing the experiences of Civil War veterans, he said, “Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”
Hiss’s favorite story about Justice Holmes was that when Holmes was a little boy, his grandmother, whom he revered, told him how she remembered looking out the front window of her father’s home on Beacon Hill in Boston and watching rank after rank of Redcoats march by. Later, the house became headquarters for the British commandant, Lord Howe. Holmes had an old mirror that used to hang in that house, and he told Hiss, “Sometimes when I look into the glass, I think I can see Lord Howe’s bewigged face staring back at me. Can you see it, sonny? Can you see it?” When Holmes died, he left the mirror to Hiss.
There it is: In one moving story, one man’s narrative about his old boss and the boss’s grandmother, we have the arc of American history, beginning even before the American Revolution, through the Civil War, to the 20th century’s Supreme Court and the Cold War. Alger Hiss called this kind of connectedness “‘the Great Span,’ a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple hundred years or more. ... [I]ts purpose, [Hiss wrote,] was to keep unifying memories alive.”
That’s one of the important things history does — it preserves the memories and stories that connect us; it links the present with the past. It causes us to see ourselves and our heritage in new ways and inspires us to think boldly about what the future might look like.
Peter A. Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. This essay was previously aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.