U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Weight

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…

The Dixie Chicks, “Silent House”

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Beautiful.

    I imagine–at least I hope–that most of us have had similar experiences. We deal primarily in written sources that we quote from carefully (of course) and make pronouncements about. But I also know we wonder about those insights we have into how others saw the things we now appropriate. I have begun to ask those I interview for the book review podcasts if they can describe encounters with their sources–living, textual, musical, etc. We get to know lives as well as the materials they produce. For example, I have a first edition of Susan Sontag’s first book signed by her. I found it at a used bookstore. I don’t know if the person who gave it up read it as carefully I have. But I do imagine that they did something I could never do (at least I hope they did)–they might have asked a 33-year-old Sontag to sign it. In the midst of the cultural rebellion that she understood as well or better than many others, the owner of my book looked at Sontag at the beginning of her career. Pretty cool.

  2. You wrote: “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’ve been surprised over the years at how many people resist this kind of connection you describe as essential. And, just to be clear, I’m with you on this.

    Perhaps it’s the old objectivity bugaboo, but the resistors see our job either as some kind of sterile retelling or, perhaps, that you’re not overlaying your version of events on your subject (i.e. the historian needs to be more powerful than the actors). The resistors fear that inhabiting their subjects will cause too much empathy and result in skewed analyses.

    I would think more would want to FEEL these connections in order to better relay meaning—what Wickberg (and you, I think) would call sensibility. At the very least you’d want a feel for the person and times being discussed, even if you didn’t want that to dominate your story. – TL

  3. Great post, LD. I had a similar experience recently on a manuscript examining the experiences of disabled Civil War Veterans in the South.

    Even from the relatively cold pension records, some of the veterans’ descriptions were just heartbreaking. And on occasion one would find a letter from a spouse or loved one that literally made me want to cry. Ok, it did make me cry a few times.

    I felt the enormous weight that you describe, the awesome responsibility of knowing something deeply personal about the possible suffering and difficulties the people I was studying experienced and/or described.

    Questions of narrative ethics are really difficult. For example, I once saw a mentor admonish a graduate student, eventually almost shouting that “The person’s stories are not fodder for your dissertation!!”

    How to balance the responsibilities here? I struggle with it, and you capture that so well here.


  4. Wonderful post, LD! Much as I appreciate the digitization of old books, one of the things that will be (is being) lost is this sort of encounter with the particularity of an old copy of an old book. When books become mere repositories of data (which can, in turn, be digitized into other formats) their existence as material objects gets lost…and, as you suggest, with that loss of materiality comes a missed opportunity for a scholarly interaction with one of the human lives that, at some level, we all write about.

  5. Thanks to all for the comments.

    The other half — or another part — of reflecting on the ethical obligations and spiritual burdens that come with handling what the dead have left behind is the whole issue of their relationship to the living.

    I didn’t put this woman’s name or university name or home state in the post for obvious reasons. In addition to protecting myself from having to carry too much knowledge about other people’s lives was a desire to protect this person’s family or friends from scrutiny.

    This woman was not a public figure — not as far as I know. Somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister (google search turned that up in census records), maybe a wife, maybe a mother, a neighbor, an aunt, perhaps a grandmother, no doubt a friend. When she or her family sent a box of books to the thrift store or the yard sale, they weren’t expecting a historian to start poring over the pages. They weren’t expecting the marginalia in those old textbooks to be fodder for anybody’s dissertation — or even for a blog post. But I have taken the liberty of publishing a lecture note scribbled in the margins of this book by a young college co-ed over 50 years ago.

    This little gloss on Persephone was not meant for the audience it now has. And that’s probably true of nearly all of the unpublished sources we look at as historians. So we are always choosing to bring to light something that other people were content to leave hidden away. That choice — our confidence in making it — implies a certain moral certitude, if not about ourselves then about our work.

    We have to believe that our work is or will be important enough to allow for (if not require) a transgression of cultural norms and boundaries of the personal and the private. To the extent that it attempts to get inside the mind and motivation of historical subjects, even the most decorous, dignified, traditional historical writing is profoundly transgressive.

    I think sometimes the sense of guilt about that profoundly transgressive aspect of our work can be daunting, even paralyzing. It can get in the way of our writing. That hesitancy is a salutary tonic. But only in small doses. Because we too are floating away on the stream of time, and if we don’t find a way to put our own understanding onto the page, it too will be lost.

    That is not our loss — we won’t be around to feel the lack. But those who come after us might need what little bit of wisdom we can offer. So for the sake of those who come after us, we need to be willing to use all that was left behind by those who went before us. I think — I hope — that acknowledging the moral weight of the work is a good place to begin.

  6. Excellent essay. Where finding that textbook fits into history, intellectual history, sociology or simply nonfiction journalism is hard to say. That’s perhaps the best thing of all, that there’s no pigeonhole for this.

    Annotations in texts were not necessarily meant to be private–perhaps they were left for the next person who inherits the book, as an intellectual diary, or the annotator sort of an Arne Saknussemm marking the cave walls for the next explorer.

    I don’t take it that you’re transgressing on her privacy atall: I’d say the notations were intended to be read by somebody else someday. And now they have been, happily, the circle is complete.

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