>Being a student of history is a lot of fun because you get to “meet” many interesting characters. Not only do you get to learn a lot about these folks, but sometimes I’ve found that I relate to them and this helps me better understand what it was like to live in the time period(s) I’m looking at. Relating to a historical figure also helps me look at current events differently by placing what happens now in the context of what happened then (and how that individual and the folks around them reacted).
One of the first times I experienced this was when I worked at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Special Collections. It was through there that I met the Mather family via their papers. For those interested in pioneer or Quaker history in the Midwest, I would definitely give this collection a look (another good one on Quakers and Abolition is the Lewis Savage collection). Ellen Mather was the matriarch of the family, who moved to Iowa from Illinois to marry her husband Samuel (he and his siblings moved here by covered wagon, and his sister left an immaculately detailed diary of their journey day by day.) The reason I felt so attracted to her story was that she strongly believed in education for her daughters and in educating her community (for example, she brought professors from the University of Iowa to give talks in her home for her and her neighbors). She was also an active participant in Chautauqua (sort of an adult continuing education movement that swept the nation in the late 19th/early 20th century.) I can see her being someone who would get really excited (like I do!) about the potentials of the Internet for sharing and for education, and I can see her taking an avid interest in the way it’s impacting education (she was a teacher in a one room schoolhouse for a while, apparently as a teenager she was the only teacher who could keep the whole class in line). Because of her passion for learning, all her daughters grew up to be successful, intelligent, and well-educated. Love it!
Another person we all know and love is John Cotton Dana. Most readers of this blog will be aware of his wide-ranging achievements in improving public library services, making materials more available through browsing, and reaching out to immigrant populations. Another reason to love JCD? He took a stand against censorship at a time when that wasn’t entirely popular or common. If you read Wayne Wiegand’s An Active Instrument for Propaganda (pgs 96-99) there’s a great couple of pages in there describing a pro-war group during World War I that found some of the books in the Newark library (where Dana was Director) to be ‘seditious.’ Most libraries removed materials to support the war effort (this was before the Library Bill of Rights), but Dana did not. His response instead? “I came to the conclusion (which I still hold) many years ago, that liberty of thought is a very desirable thing for the world and that liberty of thought can only be maintained by those who have free access to opinion.” (Wiegand, 96). The group that challenged the books, called the Vigilantes, was in a tizzy and called national media attention to the case, but Dana refused to back down (even though he didn’t see much support from the library community) and did not remove the books. I was so excited to learn about this part of his past, and it made me respect JCD all the more (he’s another one who I think would be thrilled by the possibilities for sharing and education that digital technologies provide us).
And at last we have Hugo Munsterberg. Most people today probably have never heard of him, but during his life Munsterberg was a well-respected psychologist and professor. He was passionate about his work, and passionate about fostering a positive relationship between the country of his birth (Germany) and his adopted country (the US). While there are a few things we probably wouldn’t agree on (he didn’t think women could handle the demands of graduate work, for example), I have a lot of respect for his desire to foster understanding during a time when tensions were running high. Munsterberg published a couple short books on American-German relations during neutrality (after the war started in Europe but before the U.S. entered), and these would be withdrawn from libraries for being ‘pro-German’ after the we entered the war. This is ironic as Munsterberg wrote an essay praising American libraries and their forward-thinking ways only a decade or two earlier. His story is a sad one, largely because of a rising tide of anti-German sentiment that was felt even before the U.S. declared war. He lost his job at Harvard, was thrown out of social clubs, and ostracized by friends and his community because he supported Germany. Munsterberg’s views in this regard are interesting because he did not support either country in the war (i.e. he didn’t want one side to ‘win’) but instead he wanted both sides to stop fighting and set aside their differences. His writing was removed from some of the libraries I looked at, so I got curious and looked up his books (you can download them to your Kindle from Open Library, if anyone’s interested). I was impressed by the tone: his writing is sad about current events, but optimistic for the future, and as time goes on he seems almost to be pleading for peace and understanding. He died in 1916 at the lectern while giving a talk at Radcliffe. I think the reason I feel so drawn to Munsterberg’s story is because he believed so strongly in peace and understanding, and still loved both his countries even when he was being shut out of social and professional circles. I always admire people who hold to their beliefs even when it would be easier to just go with the status quo, and part of me wonders if Munsterberg’s death was due in part to the stress of fighting for peace when the rest of the country was preparing to go to war. Reading his story helped me to remember that, as historians, we have a duty to share a variety of stories to remind modern readers that past times were as complex and diverse as the modern day.
I would love to hear what historical characters other folks have encountered during research and how they have shaped your understanding. There were so many others that I’ve learned about but didn’t include here (like the librarians at the Iowa libraries I studied) and I am looking forward to meeting more!