Boston is the city where it all began, in a way. I don’t mean the Revolution or anything; it’s just that Boston was the scene of my earliest encounters with history. When I go back there, I recall how, when I was eight, my parents used to drag me around the Freedom Trail.
I was too young to appreciate anything, yet still I remember the rough and cobbled pavements, the graveyards, the starchy white steepled churches, traipsing the windy narrow streets of Beacon Hill. We went to Plymouth Plantation one Thanksgiving, where we saw what looked like colonists dipping candles and sawing logs. To a child, the Mayflower, whose replica we toured, looked quite large—wildly large—instead of vulnerable and tiny. We went to the old iron works at Saugus one time, where the bellows fanned a fierce fire to help make iron. These sights were all just mysteries then: I had no use to make of what I was seeing. I was happy enough to see a cranberry bog and to listen when told that a person falling into the bog would be preserved for a long while, or that cranberries were a good crop to raise because they were happy even when the weather turned frosty.
One day: it was a school holiday, my parents drove us to Lexington, where we saw men battling with long guns on the common. We went to the houses around the square, where my mother read to me of how the wounded had dragged themselves to these dwellings, where they died, or where women gave them heroic treatment and saved them. The air was cold as we traipsed along the road the British took, the road along which the clever revolutionaries were hiding.
Those Boston memories remained a mish-mash, just a part of the history of my own family, of my own childhood, of something inconclusive about my life as a girl.
It was many years before I developed any interest in history. Eighth grade required history; I found it boring. I did read a lot historical biographies—about Crispus Attucks and Betsy Ross, and people like Edison, who invented things. I liked the covers of these books, which were all part of a juvenile series that stretched out invitingly on the bottom shelf of the children’s section in the public library.
I was in my mid-twenties before I grasped what history was good for. I realized that history was a structure for understanding the world that we see. Knowing history partly unlocked everyday mysteries, like racial conflict or inequality, or who ended up with valuable property. Everything in the newspaper and in government made more sense with a back story.
There was a time, a few years back, when I commuted on the El every day. I would get on the train in Ravenswood Manor and, on the long ride downtown, had plenty of time to notice what people were reading. For the first time, I became conscious of the popular thirst for history. To discover so many tired commuters plowing through histories in their spare time amazed me. In the corner would be a young man hunched over a 900-page book about a Civil War battle. Hanging on the strap, a fashionably dressed young woman happily engrossed in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Once, I was on the Red Line underground when I noticed a man in front of me reading a Library of America volume. He was many pages into it, and, when we were stopped, I asked what it was. He showed me the cover: Henry Adams’ History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, an acclaimed but seldom-read work originally published circa 1890 in nine volumes. The man told me, with evident emotion, that he was sad to be finishing. It had been that outstanding.
Historians place great importance on being right, but readers value the structure of stories. History’s gift to us is the freedom to imagine the fragmentary scenes of our own lives in relation to larger narratives of society and country. These stories are many, their threads connecting us to the ship, the bellows, the shots, the common.