Listening to details

I’m reading Stephen Brumwell’s excellent Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  One of his chapters deals with the unique challenges of campaigning in the New World: rugged terrain, severe weather…and insects.  Lots and lots of insects. 

I usually don’t think much about insects when I read military history, but to a lot of eighteenth-century British soldiers who crossed the Atlantic, they were an inescapable and ubiquitous fact of life.  This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t occur to you unless you read accounts from people who were there and experienced it.  One of the strengths of Brumwell’s book is his intensive research in first-person accounts, and in fact it’s surprising to see how abundant and rich the primary material from these soldiers is.

This outstanding use of primary sources reminded me of another fine book I read several years ago called City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946, by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson.  Oak Ridge was a town that sprang up out of nowhere, built solely as a home for the effort to create the radioactive material used in the first atomic weapons.  Because the city was built so quickly, there was a lot of mud everywhere, a fact that early residents remembered in great detail.  Again, this was an aspect of the historical experience that probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the fact that it was so prominent in the reminiscences of early residents, so the authors gave it the emphasis it deserved.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to be receptive to primary sources.  By “being receptive” I don’t just mean consulting them; I mean listening to them as well as asking questions of them.  We can get so caught up in framing our questions properly that we miss the things they’re telling us that we don’t even think to ask.  These two otherwise unrelated books are both well worth reading, partly because of the questions the authors asked but also because they remembered to listen.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography, Tennessee History

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