Monday, October 19, 2009
You Are There
"What sort of day was it?" A narrator posed this rhetorical question to his unseen audience, curled up on couches or slouched on chairs out in TV Land. "What sort of day was it?" he'd ask, then answer himself: "A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... and you were there." Between the years 1953, when I turned two, and 1957, the year two English teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney made one another's acquaintance, Walter Cronkite hosted "You Are There" over here, on CBS. Reporters with cameras and microphones would "cover" such events as President LIncoln's Gettysburg Address, 19 Nov. 1863; or the assassination of Julius Caesar, 15 Mar. 44 B.C.E. This long-gone television show (unthinkable in this period of so-called reality programming), this high-tech escapade was a fine example, albeit black-&-white, of what writers of history try to do: take you there. Joy Hakim, in From Colonies to Country: "Let's climb into a time-and-space capsule...We'll cruise over the North American continent. It is early in the 18th century... So dense are the trees and grasses over most of the continent that it is hard to see anything else, except for the birds..." Here's Natalie S. Bober, in her Thomas Jefferson biography, describing dusty Williamsburg, VA in the 1760s: "Students from the college, in their black gowns and tricornered hats, were everywhere... politicians in velvet coats, frontiersmen in their coonskin caps, and judges trailing scarlet robes all made their way to the Capitol" As for me, here's the "Boston Massacre," March 5, 1770, in The Revolutionary John Adams: "Noisy men and boys were throwing snowballs and oyster shells at a British sentry ...The scene exploded with more soldiers, an alarm bell, and a mob of men running from the town and the docks, shouting "Kill 'em! Knock 'em down!" Shots rang out in the frosty air and five Americans fell..." For me, a sense of what the moment was like is what I want and what young readers need in historical nonfiction. Story, snappy description, humanity, and immediacy: these are the sugar that help the medicine, i.e. the need-to-know facts, go down, With these things, You Are There.