Ted Widmer, 44
Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian, John Carter Brown Library (July 2006 to present)
I have often wondered if it's healthy to spend so much time living in the past. Is it not a little bit creepy to stalk people who lived so long ago, peering through windows into their private lives, extrapolating enormous conclusions about conditions we cannot possibly experience?
Of course, that has never stopped me for a second from doing all of those things. Nor you - for while else would you interrupt a perfectly productive day to read a gossipy anecdote about a random historian? Thank God HNN came along when it did to provide this long-overdue professional service.
For me, the past was always there, even in childhood, beckoning in the most subtle and alluring ways. It may have started with baseball cards. I remember learning that older ones were more valuable, so perhaps it was merely an economic calculation, but I don't think so. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the older cards were exotic; nothing was odder in Nixon-era America, with all of its facial hair, than to see those crewcuts peering out from a piece of cardboard printed two decades earlier. What civilization could have produced them?
Because I grew up in Providence, a city overflowing with the detritus of the Industrial Revolution, there were old things everywhere - old libraries, old diners, old people. It was wonderful, and I haunted thrift shops and Salvation Armies looking for outdated items to read, wear, or listen to. One day I came across Elvis Presley's"I Forgot to Remember to Forget" (25¢) - perhaps an early signpost on the way to a history career?
In such an environment, liking history seemed a foregone conclusion. There is a rule in New England that all grade schools are required to take field trips to Plimoth Plantation and Sturbridge Village, where reenactors speak in fake English accents about crop rotation. In spite of that, I found the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fascinating, and began what I suppose was my own form of reenactment, studying US history in school, college and beyond. Over time, I gradually began to like the 19th and 20th centuries too, and I now find myself in the frustrating position of finding everything that has ever happened to be of interest.
For that reason, it is satisfying to now be the director of a research institution, responding to eternally new and different requests from a global community of scholars. The JCB is unusually comprehensive in its scope, covering the entire hemisphere from Columbus to about 1825, so there is no shortage of topics to think about. While I'm glad to be back in my hometown, I'm also grateful that I was able to work at different times in completely different environments, including a huge university (Harvard), a tiny college (Washington College) and a place that was not either (the Clinton White House). But that's quite a long anecdote in itself. Perhaps I'll save that one for HNN's feature on Old Historians - I'm getting close to eligibility.
By Ted Widmer
John O'Sullivan discovered this pretended destiny, and then discovered more slowly the harsher destiny he had also ushered in. How could it be otherwise? No one of his generation had more invested in the outcome, and few paid as high a price for destiny's manifestation. But for all his bombast and backsliding, his early idealism still holds out the possibility of something better for"the Great Nation of Futurity," always just a little bit ahead of the present tense. It is difficult, then as now, to separate"America" from the United States, and one generation from another. Yet it is still exciting to strive for"new history," as O'Sullivan did in 1837, and countless others have done since, knowing they will end up as old history when all is said and done. Edward L. Widmer in"Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City"
He deserves to be reconnected to that future - to us. Not falsely praised - he would not want that. Well, all right, he would. Rather, Van Buren's life should be honestly reexamined for the truths of his own time and ours. A grand total of six American communities were named after him, presumably during his brief moment in the sun, in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio [ck Iowa, Michigan, Tenn.]. Their combined population adds up to about 10,000 people, far more than have ever read a book about him. After all that he lived through, he deserves more. Perhaps this profile will begin the process of explaining him more fully, expanding upon the effort he began alongside the Adriatic, with the sirens singing their entreaties, and Clio whispering in his ear. - Edward L. Widmer in"Martin Van Buren"
About Ted Widmer
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