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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

I wish I'd been there

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 15, 2006

Byron Hollinshead is the President of American Historical Publications, a producer of books on history.

 

Previously, he was President of American Heritage Publishing Company and Oxford University Press, Inc.

 

As a consultant for several PBS history series, Hollinshead is clearly a historian.

 

Several years ago, he was touring the Antietam battlefield with other military historians.

 

The beauty of countryside seemed to cloud the reality of 6,000 killed in the worst battle of the Civil War.

 

Hollinshead, like all historians, try to place them at that time in history to understand the events of a historical incident.

 

From that experience, he has edited a new book titled, "I Wish I'd Been There: twenty historians bring to life dramatic events that changed America."

 

It is a difficult book to read as I found myself jumping back and forth between the fascinating stories of history trying to cover all the stories.

 

Some of the selected tales are what you would expect in a book with this title.  George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln are all included in a story.

 

Others seem strangely placed, Cahokia in 1030 A.D., Robert La Follette and World War I, and a meeting between Muhammad and Fard.

 

All of the selections tell the tale of historians wanting to "be there."

 

Carol Berkin, a Professor of History at Baruch College, divides her waking hours between the past and present. 

 

She has set her "time machine" to return to 1783 and Washington's last military effort at Newburgh, New York.

 

Award-winning author Jay Winik wants to see what they saw, to feel how they felt, and experienced the event as the people of that time did.

 

His effort is to return to the last day of life for Abraham Lincoln - April 14 and 15, 1865.

 

Bernard Weisberger has taught at the University of Chicago, and is an expert on the La Follette family of Wisconsin.

 

He wants to be a "fly on the wall" on April 4, 1917 as President Wilson delivers a speech to the United States Senate regarding a declaration of war against Germany.

 

Senator Robert Marion La Follette stood silently, arms folded, gazing while chewing a wad of gum, as Wilson presented his speech to cheering Congressmen.

 

My favorite historical story is "The Sick Man in the White House," by Geoffrey C. Ward.

 

Ward describes the last year of the life of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he leads the nation into the final days of World War II in secretly declining health.

 

The public expected health issues with Roosevelt, stricken with polio in the 1920s.

 

In April 1944, heart trouble was added to the health concerns.  The President was urged to stop smoking, change his diet, and reduce his schedule.

 

But he was President, and a restricted lifestyle wasn't possible in his mind.

 

New information has emerged recently on the final year of Roosevelt's life.

 

The diaries of Roosevelt's cousin, Margaret Suckley, emerged in the past five years to reveal that she had talked to him about his health, and he understood the risks.

 

A memorandum found in 2005 from the doctor's files shows that Dr. Frank Lahey had informed Roosevelt of the health risks of a 4th term of office, and he had told the President that it was "unlikely he would survive through the term."

 

Clearly the winning of World War II was too important to Roosevelt, he stated, "all that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River, but as a good soldier I will accept and serve this office, if ordered by the people of the United States."

 

The publisher calls the book a "marvelous concept," the result is an American pageant of character and events.