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Voices from the Past

July 7, 2011

I have been very lucky to spend the first half of my summer living blissfully in the past.  Yes, this is how I spend most of my time, but this time there is an end product!  As it turns out, a digital cataloging internship for a historical center was a far better use of my time and interests than hours of watching YouTube clips of people dancing the Charleston on a taxi (trust me, I’ve done both).  So, I have felt like a spy in the walls of the Roosevelt White House, reading important government documents that have taught me far more than I ever expected (or wanted) to know about the 1905 Chinese boycotts and Russo-Japanese peace talks.  Also, though, I’ve established a far more rounded view of Theodore Roosevelt and the firm beliefs that made him tick.  The man loved his family and his country, and never failed to speak his mind.

Over the course of my work, I had gotten used to Roosevelt’s endless insults of Woodrow Wilson’s cowardice, and even smiled as he called Thomas Jefferson a “shifty phrasemaker who was ‘too proud to fight’… dragged our honor in the dust…pandered to the worst side of the people, and they supported him with enthusiasm.”  This man took crap from nobody.  One day, as I was reviewing documents as usual, getting into the metadata-creation rhythm, I came across a sentence that took me by surprise and almost felt like a personal insult (perhaps I got a little too close to the materials during my endless hours with them – it happens).  Here is what gets me: in a letter to a business friend, Theodore Roosevelt was lamenting the lack of respect Abraham Lincoln received for his words when compared to the ancient writers, citing Demosthenes and Cicero as examples of overglorified figureheads. Roosevelt thought Lincoln far superior in every way, and criticized “the fetishism of the irrational adoration of things merely because they are old.”  As a former history student and current archivist, that smarted.  After getting over that initial shock, I began to ponder his words.  Was he right?  Do we, as a society, latch onto the past simply because it is the past?

I think Roosevelt did have a point.  I know I unabashedly romanticize the past, but I hope I can see things with a less biased eye when it comes to matters more serious than my own personal amusement.  I hope I can see the merit in arguments and art regardless of their age.  Ultimately, we must hope that those things worthy of being remembered will be remembered.  Theodore Roosevelt is now further removed from us than Lincoln was from him, so Roosevelt is now himself a person we may adore “merely because [he is] old.”  I like to think it’s because he was a good leader, a good writer, and an excellent mooseback rider more than the age he lived in, but we can never know our own motives with certainty.  As archivists (and librarians!), we must be careful not to let historical “fetishism” taint our choices, but that doesn’t have to stop us from appreciating the people who have truly shaped the course of world events.  Worthy people will often be remembered.  It just takes time.

What do you think?

On an only tangentially related note, I’ll close with my favorite quote, from a 7 year old Quentin Roosevelt while his father was president.  Upon being questioned by a reporter about his father, Quentin retorted: “Yes, I see him sometimes, but I know nothing of his family life!”

(This is a modified version of a blog post originally created for the Theodore Roosevelt Center)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Graham Hukill permalink
    July 18, 2011 1:19 pm

    Disclaimer: I’ve had some strong coffee this morning and am procrastinating from actual work right now.

    Woah – awesome post. It’s a consideration I grapple with from time to time. I find myself drooling over photographs if they have a faded sepia hue, but wondering moments later, why? I don’t know any of these people, or often even the places, but I’m intrigued simple because it’s a time passed.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but as you point out, it might just be wise to be aware of it. Though olde English had such a lovely ring, and undoubtedly people were a bit more distinguished back in the day, there is no reason to assume they were any less deluded, short-sighted, or biased than we are today.

    But yeah, a super interesting aside for us folks who deal with, and even ascribe value to, the old.

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