But the Facebook post got me thinking. Particularly the way it was phrased, and especially this tidbit:
In our world of instant communication the idea of handwriting a letter home to loved ones seems quite foreign. But for these soldiers it was their only way to express their thoughts, feelings and concerns for their families.
The concept of difference, of discontinuity with the past, is often the first place our minds drift as both historians and visitors at historic sites. It is one of the stumbling blocks of many living history presentations. The "gee-whiz, they were so darned different back then," factor can make the past seem like "a foreign country," as L. P. Hartley described it.
But is it really? And is accentuating the differences really the most powerful technique when we try to help visitors connect and find relevance within the past?
One of my students, a promising historian and avid 19th century chemist named Cory, was frantically trying to polish a paper Monday night in the office on campus at the same time I was entering this semester's grades across the room. We started talking about 19th century photographic techniques and that particular Facebook post. The conversations began to weirdly cross wires...
I recently listened to a story on NPR's Fresh Air about a cave in France filled with prehistoric paintings. The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, and the travails of documentarian Werner Herzog to capture its wonder, caught my imagination. It still swirled in my mind Monday night discussing the weakness of interpreting the differences.
|A human eye saw these animals and
a human hand captured them on
a cold cave wall in modern day France.
/ CC Wikimedia Commons
Just a few millennia later, you can conjure an itinerant enlightenment artist standing at a canvas. He glances over the edge, back and forth from taught fabric to blushing beauty to canvas again. He obsessively studies every line and crease of her evanescent youth as he places brush to canvas. Then he frantically tries to fix the image on the canvas, trying to freeze the fleeting moment in time.
|A human eye saw these men and
a human hand captured them on
a cold glass plate in Gettysburg. / PD
Just a century and a half later, an American, living in an increasingly itinerant culture, obsessively studies a sunset as the burning orb creeps toward the horizon. She squints at the bright neighbor-star, all the while adjusting the exposure rate of her Nikon digital camera. Then she catches the precise color in he eye, raises the camera and frantically snaps shot after shot, trying to freeze the fleeting moment in time.
We are the early man. We are not separated from him. Our humanity unites us. Our impulse to preserve the moment, the ephemeral and the fleeting unites us. You can understand, for just a moment, the ancient man. You feel the weight of his crude brush in your hand. Then you dip that brush in oil paint. Then you adjust the hand-ground lens of your camera. And you push the button, you snap a shot to preserve the moment.
What is a Civil War soldier's impulse within his letter? Nothing different than our perpetual impulse as humans. He wanted to connect. He wanted to, if only for a moment, feel the warmth of his family and friends. And he wanted to update the folks he left behind on his status.
The Civil War soldier's letter was not simply a private affair. It was to be read aloud in the parlour for aunt and sister and cousin. It was to be shared with the neighbors, reprinted in the newspaper, preserved for generations as a final sentiment of love from a dying son.
|Facebook updates live from 1861...
What is a Civil War soldier's letter but a 19th century Facebook update?
Isn't that sort of sameness far more meaningful, more able to put the pencil in your hand after frantic battle than pointing out how different a pencil was from an iPhone?