What, after all, is the use of history? While my students might not ask me this question outright, I know many of them wonder. I sometimes wonder myself. Why do I spend my days teaching history to students? Does it all really matter in the end? Is it important for us to make connections with the past?
The writer John Egerton grew up in Trigg County in western Kentucky but he chose a couple from the other end of the state as the subjects for his book, “Generations: An American Family.” Egerton’s book made a huge impression on me when I first read it over 29 years ago in 1983.
In 2003, the publisher brought out a new 20th anniversary edition (University Press of Kentucky, 1983). Now I can read it from a fresh paperback edition instead of my old tattered inked-up copy.
Whenever I open up the old edition, loose pages fall from the book’s spine, and rusting paperclips marking key passages have marred the dog-eared pages.
Still, I return to the book again and again, quoting memorized passages to my students semester after semester.
The central premise of the book helps me understand more about what I do for a living, and why I do it.
Egerton wanted to write the story of a typical American family, but he also wanted to use that family’s experience to “encompass the broader history of the American experience.” Egerton chose to center his story on Burnam and Addie Ledford from Harlan County in eastern Kentucky and then Garrard County in central Kentucky. The author talked with the two — Burnam in his early 100s and Addie in her late 90s — in scores of interviews.
After the book was published, Burnam died at 106 and Addie at 102. In one of Egerton’s conversations with the old man, Burnam uttered a remarkable statement. I want to quote it to you, and I want you to let the import of his statement sink in.
Burnam said, “I went to see my great-grandmother on Cranks Creek in Harlan County in 1881, when I was 5 years old.” And then he said simply, “She was born in 1791, when George Washington was president.”
Think of it! Burnam Ledford had talked with someone who had witnessed every generation of American History since George Washington!
Neither I nor anyone reading these alphabet letters can ever do what Burnam Ledford did. Those days are over, now buried only in an individual’s memory or a nation’s collective past.
Still, Egerton knew, and we all know, even if we hesitate to admit it, that the past, if used wisely, can help us in the present. The author said it this way in 1983: “There remains a remnant of elderly Americans who have seen and heard every generation of citizens in the history of this nation. They are the last connecting link between our ancestors and ourselves. When their time is gone,” and that time is now surely gone, “there will be none who remember the 19th century.”
King Alexander, Murray State University’s former president, told of meeting Margaret Thatcher during his graduate work at Oxford.
The prime minister asked Dr. Alexander’s friend what she was reading (or studying) at Oxford. When the friend answered, “I’m reading history.”
Ms. Thatcher responded, “Oh, what a luxury.”
But studying history is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Don’t you think there is a crying need to “keep the link intact between our ancestors and ourselves,” in order to know where we’ve come from and in order to know ourselves? Reading and thinking about our history — the history of our families, our state, our nation and our world — allow us to do what Burnam Ledford did face-to-face with his great-grandmother. We are keeping the link intact between our ancestors and ourselves.
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. Contact him at JBolin@murraystate.edu