Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, July 15, 2017

anchorage in History and Ahistory?

Is there a happy medium between anchorage in history and ahistoricity?

Everyone views history through her or his own prism of knowledge and experience. In 1888, Henry James expressed his own sense of personal history as he reflected on what he experienced twenty years earlier when he arrived in England and travelled to London. In the English Hours, he remembered staying at the Morley Hotel and thinking about the ghostly tales of “The Ingoldsby Legends,” and the next day and seeing Queen Anne’s statue looking down on the pedestrians and carriages struggling up Ludgate Hill. He stated that, “it was a thrilling thought that the statue had been familiar to the hero of the incomparable novel (Henry Esmond). All history appeared to live again, and the continuity of things to vibrate through my mind. To this hour, as I pass along the Strand, I take again the walk I took there that afternoon.”[1]

Henry James not only knew the history of England and specifically London, but he understood the historical perspective or context of what transpired there. Years ago, at Antietam, I walked across Burnside’s Bridge several times. I remember that after several crossings I decided to count the steps because it became to symbolize more to me than a simple bridge over Antietam Creek. On that day in September 1862, Union soldiers repeatedly tried to cross it to strike at the Confederate right flank which was strategically located in the bluffs above the river. They were repulsed at great loss. As I crossed and re-crossed the bridge, I thought of those men following orders to charge across it into a withering fire that was guaranteed suicide and yet they charged. For me it symbolized the contrasting bridge concepts between real and imaginary, life and death, but for many of the soldiers trying to get across it that day, it represented only the reality of death.

Most historians considered that it ended in a draw with lost opportunities perhaps on both sides, but maybe more on the Union side. There was plenty of blame assigned. It is interesting reading about it today to learn how the “truth” of what happened will never be completely known and how writers on the event sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally fail to do the necessary research to fully describe what happen, recording only what supports their view.[2]

From a historical perspective, the outcome of the battle appeared to give President Lincoln the necessary support to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. This act anchors the battle in the broader context of what the Civil War was about. Henry James would have understood that because as he stood surveying London from different angles at different times, he understood how important it was to the British Empire.

[1] Henry James, English Hours (New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 13.
[2] William Marvel, “Battle of Antietam: Controversial Crossing on Burnside’s Bridge.” America's Civil War, 2006. http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-antietam-controversial-crossing-on-burnsides-bridge.htm


  1. Don, I'll bet I'd enjoy an afternoon with you at Stones River. At the risk of sounding like a codger, or sounding my age, I don't get the impression that "kids these days" are as moved by a sense of history and place as you and I, or Henry. "All history appeared to live again, and the continuity of things to vibrate in my mind"-Henry had to go to England to feel that, apparently, and maybe I'd have felt the same a century ago. But so much has happened since!

    To reiterate more of the preamble to this question, "Emerson famously rejected the Old World and challenged Americans to create anew. Pragmatism prides itself on being forward-looking." My thought is that a proper balance between a sense of history and a sense of pure possibility must look both forward and back. And then of course, there's the other Henry (Thoreau) and his quest to "toe the line" between those two "eternities."

  2. Anonymous9:58 PM CDT

    Great post. Pragmatism to me seems that you can look beyoond and ahead. I being a historian pride myself with the fact that history is based on facts not opinions