The theft of time has always been a primary fascination and pursuit. Beyond my own conceit, the subject is more commonly known as history. But I have always seen the subject both more broadly and more personally than would be accepted by, say, the typical academic.
Usually, pedagogic prejudice does not openly admit its failings and weakness. Needing fortification against the untaught masses who might otherwise question the tattered cloak, the academic will often throw up a screen of minutia and assumed fact and bellow its affected knowledge loudly. ‘Do not look behind the curtain.’ Information is buried in the labyrinth of libraries and ‘off-site’ storage facilities. Few professors are true scholars and anyone who approaches the citadel without first accepting the self-perpetuating rules of academic engagement will be denied entry to the sanctuary of the academy.
Some of this is understandable. The entry fee to those precincts cannot be had cheaply. But when it becomes commonplace for appointments to be made for purely political purpose, the foundations of the university are threatened. Something akin to a King who admits only the sycophant to his castle. Under siege, there are no tried and true defenders. No men of the long-bow. We have passed that stage today. Yet few disciplines are left which hold to the veracity of acquired knowledge as dearly as the small number of historians of integrity.
Certainly we have whole disciplines in various colleges which have been overwhelmed by political correctness and the conjecture of motivations completely outside of scholarship. The Lysenkos have even reached into the hard inner keep of the science departments. But there is still a corps of historians—a Swiss Guard—which holds its ranks.
In our midst we are blessed to have two fine historians working simultaneously over much of the same historical ground, addressing many like concerns, yet going about their task in very different ways. Such a divergence of method focused on the same subject is exactly what often makes for great science. Here we have great history as a result.
One historian I know from frequent visits to my now lost bookshop. The other has been in the same vicinity, and may have even come by, but was never introduced to me personally. I imagine David Hackett Fischer as a shy man, despite being a professor who has taught thousands in classrooms for forty years. I think of him as quiet and determined. There is something inexorable in his approach to a subject which is comforting to the reader. He will get there and you will know it. Because he works by day within the protective walls of Brandeis University, it was a long time before I gave him my attention. I have that much distrust toward the modern academic. I regret the delay. I have read something of his every year since my discovery of his wonderful Paul Revere’s Ride. What academic would even think of a scholarly study of such a prosaic subject? I had to read it! I was hooked from that moment.
David McCullough is a horse with a difference. His passion is to find the story in things. And for that, he searches for character. His accumulation of fact and detail is no less imposing than Fischer’s, but he weaves his threads with more splendid colors. Being from New York City and having lived close by that wonderful object, I read The Great Bridge when it was new in the early 1970’s. I think I swallowed the whole of it in a couple of days, and I have looked back at it many times since.
Mr. McCullough is a warm and friendly fellow, happy to talk to anyone about his passions, even a lowly bookseller. He works outside the academy, and thus without that protective armour, and is often dismissed by ‘authorities.’ Not that they can easily fault his scholarship, which they seldom do, but that they will not witness it without being dragged into the court of public opinion. Ye gads, he writes bestsellers! McCullough has simply worked ahead and done the unlikely, overwhelming his academic critics.
Lately I have just read David Hackett Fischer’s splendid new account Champlain’s Dream. As usual, it is terrific in every respect, opening pathways in the deep forest of my own ignorance. Did you know that the Indian tribes of the Northeast fought their frequent battles among themselves in much the same way as the ancient Greeks? It was the introduction of the European blunderbuss which forced them out of their fortresses and into the guerilla tactics which we commonly think of as theirs from the start. Did you know anything at all about Champlain other than the very cold waters that separate Vermont from New York? I did not.
Worse, my little assumed knowledge of Champlain was taken from a Catholic parochial school education which stressed the faith, religious mission, and saintly suffering of the Jesuits and Recollets who imposed their zeal on a native culture already under the physical siege of newly transported disease, rats, and Europeans. I had no idea of the deep faith of the man who brought those priests into the mix, nor of his courage, his seamanship, and most importantly, his vision. I could not have imagined that after eighty voyages in fragile ships across a treacherous Northern ocean of frequent fog, ice flows and unknown reefs, he could not even swim. Nor did he ever lose a boat under his command. Such details are the kind of hooks that keeps me on the line when I am reading.
McCullough has previously captured that elusive and difficult quality, courage, in the person of the under appreciated John Stevens, the greatest of several heroes in Path Between the Seas. The epic accomplishment of building the Panama Canal was better seen as an act of imperial hubris by some scholars. Heroes are not an accepted commodity in academic circles. Some men who hide behind ivy covered walls are reluctant to draw comparison with themselves.
In a feat that defied those who so often dwelt on the larger than life (and self created) image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, McCullough rescued a President, Harry Truman, from the obscurity of innuendo and unexamined fact. Yes, he proved, a common man might become uncommon by his own determination.
Fischer approached more iconic presumptions with Washington’s Crossing. Has anyone bothered to step beyond the painting of the Great Man standing in the small boat amidst the icy river? The wealth of detail uncovered by his research and laid before the reader is breathtaking. More than one future President stood his ground on that cold night in Trenton. Providence must have played its part as the bullets missed the largest rider on the largest horse as he rode a stone’s throw from his enemy so that he might be seen before his tired and weary men, and turn the tide of battle at Princeton. And the ‘forage war’. In all my reading on the American Revolution I had never even heard of this key victory.
Reading about Champlain’s quests, I was much reminded of McCullough’s inspiring biography John Adams. What, you might wonder, did these two men, two hundred years and two very different cultures apart, have in common? One was essentially celibate, and the other deeply in love. One believed in the liberty of the individual, and the other accepted his place in a royal hierarchy. The answer is integrity. And courage. And faith. And something else, more idiosyncratic to my own purposes here.
Both men, despite their incredible accomplishments, have been much neglected by the professional historian and for similar reasons. Neither fits easily into the pre-conceived molds of our own politically correct age, nor the parochial interests of the recent past.
And for me, their resurrections are the masterwork and cunning of artful thieves. Veritable Robin Hoods. Fischer and McCullough are thieves of times which would have otherwise been lost to the flood of intellectual neglect and the pillage of those who want their facts packaged for neat distribution. From the drawers and shelves of moldering paper and unsorted historical debris they rescued the valuable. Thieves are usually cast in a negative light. I would guess that neither of these authors would want to be seen under such a label. But this is my own personal attachment. I have always admired Robin Hood. I have read the great historian J.C. Holt’s recreation of that forest shadow. I am casting Mr. McCullough and Mr. Fischer in the role. They steal facts from the troves hidden in the Royal academies of academic authority and give them to those who are intellectually hungry.
Time is the great valuable here. These are thieves of the best sort. They bring us the most precious of gifts. Time is so easily lost and so difficult to find. Both of these authors capture a past in their pages and bring it forward to the present. I simply like the image of it. In the ‘nick’ of time, so to speak.