Reimagining American Community

old buttonI found a button recently. That is, I found something that unites in front an otherwise gaping piece of clothing, holds it together through weather, turns its shabbiness into something handsome, makes the unbecoming fitting.

I say I found it–arguably it was not lost.  In fact, it was on my grandfather’s shirt while he rocked the chair back and forth in the back yard. I’ve been in Texas these past few weeks on a writing retreat of sorts, and my grandparents (those same ones mentioned previously), and yes, they have served Texan-grown steak), were eager to host such a retreat. They have done so marvelously.

My grandfather has been a pastor since he was 15. The beginning of his ministry is rather sensitive, having to do with him being left by his father at the stoop of a church. But with a smile wider than a Texan sunrise, he has told us his grandkids perhaps everything worth mentioning that happened since. Having had to prepare for a service every week for decades, and-–as if the smile was not enough–-having an enormously loud laugh, he has in addition an acute perception of the grotesqueness and splendor of human life–all combined with a mustache; a pair of glasses; short, curly-grey hair; and a voice honed for narrative.

Recently, he started talking about a book he was working on. We both love words, and talking about words, and working on lathes of language. And hearing that he meant to write a book did not surprise anyone. Its content, however much I wish to keep it hidden till he finishes it, is dedicated to one part of his family’s history, when his father, my great-grandfather, went across the U.S. in search of my great-grandparents’ kidnapped, adopted daughter, Darcy.

He sat across from me, and told me story after story. Some I had heard before, but now the story began to form into something wider — as wide as the whole country, in fact, as the search stretched further and further out.

That was when I noticed the button, and later, in my own ruminations, I began to see how much that button holds together. This, here, I confess, is only the skeleton of an idea that I wager has far more strength and vitality. But that will come with time.

Enough with the cryptic. The button, I am convinced, is a fair-enough representation of the local historian. He, the historian, seems to hold together at least three things, which would otherwise flap helplessly in the wind. The first thing that the historian holds is localism. It is easy for this term to become nebulous. It can become merely the gauge by which one place may be compared with another. How many front porches are there in Town X? How may Walmarts in City Y? How much locally-roasted coffee, or imported plastic, or exported corn, or internal and external conflict?

There is something, however, about knowing why the front porches were abandoned, or when the Walmart was built, or who began to roast the coffee, and the rest. The front porches were abandoned when such-and-such a custom began here-and-then. The Walmart entered in when there weren’t enough mom-and-pop stores to supply for everyone, or when people started to forget the names of the mom and the pop. We started exporting cow corn when the demand for ethanol got us a better price for it, and so on.

As an anecdote (in other words, an example, not an argument), I remember going with my mother to Walmart when I was young; we went there often, and would get the same thing at the butcher’s shop in the store: “half-pound honey-cured ham, thin but not shaved.” I remember reciting it nervously before the butcher, who smiled to hear it again.

There’s something local about that. Something was remembered. Something became ritual, inside a Walmart no less. That’s a part of the local history of Charlotte, North Carolina that suddenly changes the understanding of a superstore. Superstore-ness aside, the place became local because habits and names were made there. When the store has that sort of history, and when people remember that history, it has to change the understanding of the store, super or otherwise, and raises the paradox that localism can be found within a modern carapace. Localism is trans-accidental; it is historical.

The second thing that the local historian holds is an understanding of technology. Hearing my grandfather go over the research he has to get through makes me grateful for phones, registries, databases, emails, and google-maps like nothing else– more grateful than I am for these things even in my own academic work. In our post-Baconian world, it is easy to think of technology as the means to subdue time and space (those dual prime-regents of “Nature”): technology equals faster and lighter.

When I have to wonder if most technology is (also), in fact, memorable; that is, slower and heavier.

In one sense, the book is the first (and something of the last) singularity of time and space, besides time and space themselves. To go through the research, the rigorous and mysterious study of a single subject would force, not only useless, but indelicate repetition, if everyone had to do it every time. When instead we can sit down, read, re-read, and give to someone else to read, the same book. The written word – and I will pass by this softly – the written word is something like the first and final wrinkle in time.

So that, the local historian is at once the time-traveller and the man of the present. “The world’s not in your maps and books. It’s out there,” says Gandalf. In the local historian, there is the book and the world together, where someone can read, and look out and see the bridge which was written about. The local historian can preserve his place’s infancy, youth, adolescence, and the rest, and in keeping its youth, keeps it youthful. He puts it in the book which might only interest a neighborhood, or a city, or a town to read. But it continues that town’s humanity, by recalling its past humanity – in all its particularity and tragedy and redemption.

Every good book of history is small not because it is anemic, but because it is condensed. It is heavier for being small, not lighter. And that is quite the confusion for the technologists; and quite the boon for the local historian.

The last thing that the local historian holds (and he holds it together with the other two) is language. Everyone loves to have those jokes or phrases, which are so intimate between himself and one or two others, that it only takes  a word for the whole of the joke to be understood. The local historian is the keeper of that intimacy when he keeps those intimate moments, those social traditions, alive for those in a town. How often does a town have an event that takes a word for everyone to remember? Pleasant or painful, it seems good to keep those words in the historical registry of that place.

There are words and meanings which are kept by the local historian. Having a word with a double meaning does not imply that the word is deceptive, but that many people have touched it, so that we can share our sensations, our interiority, in these tightly-packed bundles of meaning: meaning which builds, becomes denser, as these words are handled. How many senses of a word are lost in a place if its history is lost? There is, I have little doubt, a trove of words and senses of words that the local historian could rediscover and employ to make language itself richer, and places richer in remembering to use them.

The local historian – local to his town, his street, or whatever precinct he has fallen in love with – becomes a rarer creature as the place becomes smaller. An American historian is, of course, in a sense a local historian. But what we desire by the “local” historian is the Main Street historian, the Smith-family historian, the 93rd-Street-apartment-building historian. We mean, those people who record stories that immediately affect perhaps only one family, one street, one town. We mean something that is somewhat private. We wish to keep things that are precious, if individually precious, like a family heirloom that would otherwise turn into a mere thimble or a mere rocking chair. We do not desire secrecy. We desire intimacy. That is the difference between a history and a diary.

I hope someday to write about my grandfather, and someday to read the history of his father that he writes.

That was, in short, the button I saw recently, and how it made a few things clearer. And I think them very handsome things to bring back: buttons generally. It would do well to remember how to hold things together without tying them up.

About the Author
Alongside studying politics, philosophy, and economics in New York City, Charles usually has with him St. Aquinas' Being and Essence and De Regnum. He yearns to write stories and essays carefully, and thinks both English tobacco and ale the better choice to end the day with. Aposiopesis is currently his favorite figure of speech.