Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Through Hard Work, Historians Will Outwit You

This entry is a loose sequel to another entry, Please, Do It for the Historians.

Historians will easily outwit you if you use a credit card or debit card to buy stuff. According to an NPR story from the other day, people with access to your purchases can already paint a good picture of you from the buying habits they can track. But that's not what I'm writing about here.

I've decided to address you people who don't really write personal journals, articles for publication or letters to other people (I don't know if e-mails or blogs count -- possibly another topic to explore). Maybe people who won't do much or don't plan on doing much to impact history the future don't have to apply for this one. Who will remember you, anyway?

For this topic, I'm thinking about mostly about George Ripley, the guy who established the community I'm studying and will write a paper about soon. Mr. Ripley wrote plenty of letters to people and articles that got published in at least Boston and New York periodicals throughout the 19th century. He apparently wrote in a personal journal during the early part of his life, but he discontinued that practice in the 1830s or around the time he established Brook Farm.

Maybe Mr. Ripley just got too busy with life. After all, he had to start ministering to his church and after he resigned from there, he had to administrate Brook Farm.

I know how it is. I used to write a personal journal back in high school and during parts of college, but I have a hard time remembering the last time I actually wrote in a journal. Life can become a busy enterprise. I can't blame Mr. Ripley.

But for amateur and professional historians, this kind of situation gets difficult, even though I'm willing to bet that professional historians learn how to cut through the distractions and that stuff that isn't useful. Nonetheless, there's something to say about the serendipity in find a factoid you wouldn't have found without reading through a whole book or even by reading something again with more insight built up by the understanding found through other texts on the topic or person.

But lately, I'm finding myself having to study Mr. Ripley through indirect means. I have to try finding information and insights into him by reading about the people around him, his friends, relatives, colleagues and so forth. Mr. Ripley had the tendency to write in ways to try convincing people to do something or believe something. However, he didn't write in a way that revealed himself and touch upon his real motivations for doing something or believing in something. Like many people, even in the present, he just did and tried to bring people along with him on the ride.

To remedy this problem, I've tried reading about people in his life along with people and movements that may have inspired him. This list includes: William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (whose history for some period also comes indirectly through what people around her wrote about her), Charles Fourier, Victor Cousin, Theodore Parker, the German Romantics, Albert Brisbane and Andrews Norton, just to name a few references.

And now I've moved onto Orestes August Brownson, a fiery hulk of friend who became very good friends with Mr. George Ripley. In Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia, Sterling Delano quotes either a text written by Mr. Brownson or Mr. Ripley that if not for Mr. Brownson, Mr. Ripley would not have established Brook Farm.

Thus far, I've stayed away from Mr. Brownson. From what I read previously, he always seemed to exist on the periphery of the Transcendentalists, someone they gave a trial membership to their, but he was even too crazy and out there for them!

How was I wrong. Apparently, Mr. Brownson had more influence on Henry David Thoreau than Mr. Emerson, which came as a shock to me.

Mr. Brownson still ended up being a little too rowdy for most of the Transcendentalists and his later conversion to Catholicism and conservatism makes one wonder about his intellectual and idealistic consistency (but I guess that's also what makes him a little interesting). Despite his larger than life presence that made them uncomfortable around him and cut down on their exposure to him, he may become a major source of information about one of his best friends, Mr. Ripley.

At least, hope so. . .

And this story, my friends, shows the kind of difficulty you will put to historians when they try to understand you better and write you story when you don't write a personal journal or something else that will transmit your true motivations, ideas, beliefs and feelings. Don't do it. Don't make life difficult for historians in the future. After all, they're the ones who will tell your story to the future. Just hope their resentment won't affect the tone of that story. It's not something you want to regret.

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