Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Borne back into the past

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby."

Sometimes it is an escape.

I love history. Hell, I should love it, since I majored in it during college and spend a good portion of my working life writing about it.

But it's more than a vocation. It's very much an avocation. It's a passion.

A few weeks ago, while checking out at a store, I noticed the clerk had been reading David McCullough's biography on John Adams. So, we struck up a conversation. And I realized, while talking about our nation's founders, that part of the appeal lies in the fact that so many of these great characters from history are exactly that -- characters.

No novelist, not even Shakespeare, could dream up the rise and fall of Richard Nixon. Horatio Alger has nothing on Harry Truman's ascent to the White House. Even Dickens couldn't come up with as colorful a character as Teddy Roosevelt.

The American Civil War? My goodness, what to say about that? And we haven't even mentioned European or Asian history yet.

For me, though, I think history is also an escape. To what I'm not exactly sure. I think it gives me an illusion that things were better once, more romantic, more noble. I sometimes get depressed because I look at our current era and its great challenges and fail to see the hero on the horizon who's going to help us fix the mess.

And so, like Fitzgerald's boat against the current, I escape back to the past, back to something I've never known, back to a time of great ideas, back to the interesting, flawed men and women who shaped the American experience.

I like what I find there. But, does it make me crazy if I tell you that sometimes I don't want to return to the present?

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