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The Historical Record

I’m reading a page-tuner, Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award winner, “In The Heart of the Sea; The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” the 1819-1820 whaling expedition that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Philbrick’s history is based on many sources including the first-hand account of a survivor, Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy.

In between squalls and the rigors of the butchery known euphemistically as whaling, working men and passengers on 19th century ships had ample time to ruminate, philosophize, and write observational notes in journals. Without this written record, historians would not be able to reconstruct a story as Philbrick has done so vividly.

This set me to thinking about the historical narrative of our time and how it will be researched by future generations. Assuming that most of the primary source material/data will be electronic or electronically scanned, will historians find it easier or more difficult to do their research? Is it important for all of us to maintain a record of our lives in some form: blogs, journals and notebooks, stories? What happens if we don’t?

Most writers and artists are vexed by these questions. It’s one of the many reasons we struggle to create a lasting body of work. But lasting in what way? And why is it that writers and artists assume their/our stories are worth preserving? I suppose it’s because we are different than most people in one essential way: We are participants but also observers in events, slightly marginalized, peripheral narrators of our lives in our own historic time and place.


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