Since my dissertation examines a particular moment in the history of higher education, part of my task involves situating that moment — the debate over “the canon” and the Western Civ requirement at Stanford in the 1980s — within a longer history of the general education curriculum at American universities.
So one thing I’m looking at is the metamorphosis of textbooks — history survey textbooks, literary anthologies, and so forth. This research involves checking out a lot of old books from my own university library, or requesting them through interlibrary loan. And, when I’m really lucky, this research also involves finding old textbooks from lit survey or Western civ classes for sale at used bookstores.
I found just such a book recently, for less than $5. It is sitting on my desk now as I write these words, and it is weighing on me something awful. In this post I would like to talk about that weight, because I have to believe that I don’t carry it alone.
On the inside front cover of this old textbook — the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol. 1 (1956) — is the price tag from the “Student Supply Store” at a particular east coast university. This textbook was assigned for “English 3” at that school, and it cost $5.50 new. On the flyleaf is the name of the student who bought the book — her name, her home address and her phone number (the old kind, with the exchange name followed by five digits). Beneath that is the name of her residence hall on campus, along with that phone number.
The text itself is in excellent condition for my purposes. The book was well-used, but well cared for. There are abundant marginalia beside some of the readings — lots of question marks, a few editorial asides, some passages marked with multiple exclamation points. A running conversation with the text. At the start of the book — the start of the semester — the annotations were all written in fountain pen. Towards the end of the textbook, the annotations are written in a mix of ball point pen and pencil, sometimes with both writing mediums side by side on the same page. I am no paleographer, but it seems to me that the handwriting is consistent throughout. This book was purchased for use in a lit survey class some time after 1956, and it was read and re-read by the young woman who first bought it, and who has left a record of her encounters with these texts — the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Song of Roland, Don Quixote — in the margins.
I am looking right now at a gloss on the identity and significance of Proserpine, who is mentioned in Virgil’s account of the death of Dido: “Wife of Pluto. Ghosts under her. For six months of the year she is in Hades. Her mother (Demeter in Greek) Ceres is grief-stricken, and causes 6 months of winter. No vegetation, no growth.” So this young woman’s annotations continue throughout the selection from the Aeneid, punctuated at one point by a single, significant word: “Exam.”
I say “this young woman” — but how do I know? Well, I know because I googled her. I know what year she was born, what year she graduated high school, and what year she started college; I know that she was an accomplished writer who won an award for student journalism during her freshman year at college. But after that year, she disappears from Google searches. My surmise is not that she died. For this textbook, which sits on my desk more than 50 years after it sat on her desk, has been well kept and well cared for. My guess is that the original owner of this Norton anthology, a bright young woman — or, I suppose, a bright young lady — got married. Perhaps she continued with her studies, and finished her degree under her married name. Perhaps not.
It would be easy enough for me to find out. But I don’t want to know.
I don’t want to know, because I don’t want to care. Not because I lack empathy, but because as a historian and as a person I suffer from a surfeit of it. Empathy, sympathy, the sense of commonality and kinship, the compassion we feel for these people we encounter in the archives, on the page — these ties that bind our subjects and ourselves are essential to our work. They make it possible; they make it matter. But they can also make it hurt like a sonofagun.
I don’t want to know this woman’s life story. I don’t want to know whether she had children, whether she stayed married, or for how long, whether she is still alive and sold her old college textbooks while preparing for a move into a smaller home, or whether she died and her children or nieces or nephews had to decide for themselves which books to keep, and which to sell. Sorting through the remnants of a life, letting go of things your loved ones carried all the way — that’s a tough process. And keeping things is just as tough, because all those once-loved things call to mind a marvelous presence now forever absent.
Somebody has kept this book for almost sixty years. And somebody has decided to let it go. But I have to put all of that out of my mind while I am using this book, marginalia and all, to understand how “the canon” was taught in American universities during the Cold War. I have to be able to view this source — the text, the notes, the materiality of this codex — coolly, as evidence for an argument I need to make. I have to feel free to use this remnant of the past; I need it for my work.
My work involves the interpretation and contextualization of other people’s experiences. As a historian, I survey and weigh and rearrange what is left of other people’s lives. That is a heavy weight to carry, and if I think very much about the particulars of those lives, I can’t carry that weight at all. The best I can do — or at least all I know to do, for now — is to use these scattered fragments of other people’s lives in order to try to bring back to life a time, a moment, a world that might otherwise be lost. The burden, the obligation to do that work right, to do it well — this is the most that I can bear for the sake of the once-young woman whose well-annotated Norton anthology now sits on my desk. For I have heavy-laden bookshelves of my own.
I will try to connect all the pieces you left;
I will carry it all and let you forget.
And I’ll remember the years when your mind was clear —
How the laughter and life filled up this silent house…