Friday, August 24, 2012

Why visiting today's Washington DC could harm evoking its atmosphere of 75 years ago

Seventy five years ago (on the eve of WWII), sleepy Washington DC, particularly during the summer legislative recess, was a small part of the greater Baltimore Maryland metropolitan area.

Today, of course, (post WWII) the reverse is true.

Even the DC climate is changed and for once I do not mean thanks to global warming - I mean via the widespread advent of air conditioning. 

DC's skies are a different - dirtier - shade of blue, thanks to millions of local cars.

I attended and still visit Martin Henry Dawson's old university of Dalhousie almost daily - but I am under no illusion that the Dalhousie of 2013 is the Dalhousie of 1913 that Dawson first attended one hundred years ago.

Londonderry Nova Scotia still shows the slag mounds of 125 years ago but last year I couldn't see the extended town site, the huge steel mill and the dense smoke that Dawson's aunt and uncle daily saw 125 years ago, no matter how hard I tried.

This year, I re-visited the same Pictou town where Dawson's father got his only schooling,  but I was under few illusions the visit would really help me get a handle on what the education of 150 years ago was like - though I am convinced it was formative in influencing Martin Henry Dawson 50 years later.

Dawson , via his parents and his older brothers, was also influenced by whatever education his Gaelic grandmother got in the high north of the Scottish Highlands.

 However I doubt even an extended stay in her tiny home village (now a tourist haven) would help me understand the relationship Highlanders felt between nature and man 175 years ago, as important as it might be in forming Dawson's own unique view of that relationship 100 years later.

History writing is not at all like journalism

History writing is not travel writing or investigative journalism : it may even be seriously harmed by attempting to do either, in the vain hopes of making your writing "more real" and "more vivid" .

Instead a historical writer must do much archival hands-on research through many different accounts contemporary to the time in question.

This, together with deep readings of the best secondary accounts written by people with a lifetime feel for that distant place and era, is the only sure way to convey the long gone atmosphere of an unique time, place, person and event of even so called "recent" history....

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