I’m a strong advocate of the study of history. As Polybius said, “The only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune is to recall the calamities of others.”
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to view every circumstance and experience through our own, acutely limited prisms. If all we ever think of is ourselves, we’re destined to never fully engage with life. Granted, many historians seem incapable of studying the past without inflicting contemporary priorities and values upon the dead. We all too often lack that empathy, and seem to give little thought to how future generations will judge us.
Fortunately, most of us don’t need to worry about how history will remember us, because, simply, it won’t. One should take comfort in that, especially keeping in mind many of the people history does remember. To be known and remembered by the public at large is, ultimately, to surrender your identity. Your life becomes fictionalized, people project their perspectives on you and their opinions change. How many historical figures are celebrated as heroes one century and vilified the next?
Live life to its fullest, and you’ll only be remembered by the people who really knew you and cared about you—the people who deserve to remember you. What could be better than that?
Now, with that in mind…
Reading: “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne
So, on the topic of history and perspective, read “Empire of the Summer Moon,” which chronicles, as the full title goes on to declare, “Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.”
The Pulitzer finalist is not only remarkably well-researched and well-written, but also empathetic and evenhanded in a way very few histories ever are. Gwynne never passes judgment on his subjects, regardless of whose “side” they’re on, even when describing—in often graphic detail—the abject atrocities the Comanches and their enemies inflicted upon one another.
Remember that Polybius quote at the top? Well that really applies here. One of the many lessons in “Empire of the Summer Moon,” is that people on the frontier in the 19th century had it hard. Really, really hard. Whether Comanche, or American or Sioux, Mexican, Texan, Navajo—whatever—life was difficult, dangerous and all but guaranteed to be cut short, and yet those hardy folks lived it nonetheless, often with an enthusiasm and commitment that is hard to find these days.
I’ve said before that a good book has something to say by the end, and a great book has something to say on every page. “Empire of the Summer Moon” has something to say in every sentence, and Gwynne says it extremely well.
Viewing: “The Dig”
Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star in this brand-new Netflix original movie. Look at me, recommending something new.
“The Dig” tells a lightly fictionalized account of the famous 1938 Sutton Hoo archaeological dig. On the eve of the Second World War, widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Mulligan) hires uneducated amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate some ancient barrows on her property. What they stumble upon is a find of such importance it could reshape modern understandings Anglo-Saxon culture and history.
The Sutton Hoo dig was of monumental significance and many of its findings are housed in the British Museum. However, Brown’s contributions to the dig and to archaeology as a field were not fully recognized until 2009, 32 years after his death. His social class and lack of a formal education relegated him to the footnotes of history for decades.
With due melancholy and introspection, “The Dig” paints a beautiful portrait of Brown and Pretty. To no one’s surprise at all, Mulligan and Fiennes deliver powerful, understated, deeply moving performances. The script spends an appropriate amount of time situating the find, the characters, and the oncoming war in the greater context of history, reminding us with affection that history is made up of people—even and especially the ones who go forgotten.
Listening: “Jackson C. Frank” by Jackson C. Frank
Jackson C. Frank released one album in his lifetime, his 1965 eponymous record, produced by Paul Simon. It didn’t perform very well, partly because of Frank’s severe depression stemming from childhood trauma (while a child, his school caught fire, killing 15 of his classmates, including his girlfriend, and leaving him burned on 50% of his body). He spent much of his adult life in and out of mental institutes, or else homeless and destitute.
Naturally, despite countless prominent artists citing him as an influence and/or covering his songs, he never achieved anything close to fame in his abbreviated and troubled life.
His eponymous album consists of 15 tracks of just Frank and his guitar, and though the folk music scene at the time was resoundingly dominated by Bob Dylan, I don’t see much of a gap in the quality of the songwriting between the two artists.
The opening track, “Blues Run the Game,” is probably the best-known on the album, having been covered by Simon & Garfunkel and other artists, and appearing in several films and TV shows. It was used to great effect in Robert Redford’s final film, “The Old Man and the Gun.”
Frank was forgotten and overlooked for his entire in life, and may be forgotten and overlooked again in the future, but at least he isn’t right now.