One man's thoughts on NH history and
For those of you kind enough to inquire, yes my little booklet on the history of Portsmouth is printed. We're working now on final billing and the free distribution plan locally, and there will be a few copies available to loyal web readers in the next newsletter, but we're keeping it low key until the holiday is over. We got a call for a copy from none other than Portsmouth's most famous UFO abductee Betty Hill, so Wednesday I trucked a few blocks over to Betty's house on State Street for a great evening of live chat. Her latest book on UFOs is now in print and we discussed her famous 1965 ride in an alien spacecraft (See "The Interrupted Journey") which helped kick off the UFO craze) and then got down to business. Betty (nee Betty Barrett) , now 79, is a big local history buff and is related, she says, to both the Rollins and Dow families. She trotted out a couple of giant genealogy books and traced her ancestry for me. Like UFOs, that genealogy stuff is over my head. Betty assured me she would give the new Portsmouth history booklet a tough going over for accuracy. It's good to have friends in high places.
UPDATE: We almost made it through the year without a tussle, but now Red Hook Brewery is angry at the City for not serving their beer at the 375th Gala last Friday. It was a giant oversight. Red Hook wants an apology and they deserve it. No sponsor stuck with the yearlong event better than Red Hook. They were there from the beginning, spending thousands. They supported every event, every effort including the Gala itself. President Jerry Prial is absolutely correct when he says the city committee should have thanked the brewery rather than forgetting them at the critical hour. I was out of town and missed the party, but the fact is, the City has a lot to learn about mixing politics and public relations.
About 400 or 500 articles ago I started writing about local history because of a "discovery" I made while perusing the shelves of the Dimond Library at UNH not too long after graduating from college. I couldn't believe my eyes when I learned that the Pilgrim fathers had come all the way from Plymouth to buy fish from the only white residents of NH in 1623. I was not the first to make that connection, but if felt original. Until that point, I had assumed that literature was creative and that history writing was just the dull reporting of facts. But facts are like Legos. You can have too many, too few, and different historians can assemble them in different ways. Anyway, I wrote the story up and it was published in NH Profiles, probably when Peter Randall was editor back in the mid 1970s. I've revised it a half dozen times since, and the "Turkeygate" story of how NH "saved" the Pilgrims at the "second thanksgiving" has still got a lot of tread on it. It's on this site, and it taught me that history is as much about perspective as it is about fact. Once every year at this time, I remember that fact and give thanks.
Kafka said that there was no need to go anywhere, and I have tended to agree. Sit still, he said, do not even move from your chair, and the world will come and grovel itself at your feet. My "chair" for decades has been downtown Portsmouth, and I've seen a lot of the world from here -- foreign tourists, well-traveled tankers, ethnic foods, Pier I imports. In fact, when I was in Toronto this weekend, two of the headlining musical acts were people who had recently performed at the Portsmouth Music Hall a few dozen yards from here. My see-the-world-in-a-mustard-seed type of thinking can be magnificently obsessive, but I'm starting to see the downside. One begins to believe, in time, that the chair is a sacred throne, and that the view from it takes on gospel tones. I've been using this region to take my measure of the world. I see the history of America through a Portsmouth glass. Knowing thyself, and likewise thy turf, is at least half the equation for wisdom, and I would always rather be a contemplative hayseed that a well-traveled fool. But there's a lot to be said for just getting out of the chair, now and then, and walking though strange neighborhoods. That sentiment is working its way onto my New Year's Resolution List.. Maybe I need less chair and more ejection seat, a home base rather than a final resting place.
Now let's open that miscellaneous history bag and see what we have. First, I heard a hot rumor that writer Peter Maas (Serpico) was in from New York and hanging around Portsmouth Public Library on Tuesday. He as researching the submarine Squalus, in which many died in a pre-WW2 accident. But Maas has already written a book on the Squalus, so what's he searching for now? When I was at the dentist, I heard on the radio that the people who claim George Washington had an illegitimate black son have come to Exeter to trace their roots. Wonder what the Seacoast connection is. But the dentist's drill was so loud, I missed the details. Friday, of course, is the big history gala. Looks like at least 250 people will be dancing it up at the Frank Jones Center in honor of Portsmouth's past. I'm heading out of town, but I expect the partying will be audible from hundreds of miles away.
To get things done in this town, you need a history of your own. Familiarity greases the wheels of progress, and I bet it was even worse in the olden days. Lord help a stranger who blew into town and tried to cash a bank note. Take today, for instance. I've been going to the same bank building since 1973. I'm loyal, not to the institution, but to the architecture. At least three banking companies have occupied the space. So today I saunter in as always and write a check to myself for "Cash" which I've been doing for 25 years. "Do you have ID?" the teller says. I do, but that's not the point. She asks if any of the other tellers know me. There is only one, another new one. She glances back with an uncertain shrug. We are at a standoff. The poor woman cannot help. She is new. The manager knows me cause I borrowed $5,000 dollars. The head teller is in the bathroom. Nowadays you can bank on the Web, get free coffee and watch a Scooby-Doo video, thanks to the bank, but history means nothing. Some guy from Lithuania with a driver's license gets his check cashed before the poor 25-year customer. They don't make institutions like they used to around here. I decided on the spot to withdraw all my money and go next door to the bank where the teller hasn't changed in decades. In a week she'll know me. That's all I wanted in the first place.
Mired in Thomas Bailey Aldrich-land again. After 10 hours immersed in books about Portsmouth's most famous writer, I begin to understand his fame. It certainly wasn't the poetry. It has much to do with his 10-year stint as editor of Atlantic Monthly in the 1880s. Aldrich followed William Dean Howells and James Russell Lowell. It seems the key requirement to edit America's ultimate literary magazine was to have three names. That put Aldrich in the Boston literary catbird seat, but his editing apparently wasn't up to the others. He was friendly with Longfellow, Whistler, Edwin Booth and the usual round of Boston writers from Whittier to Emerson. But beyond it all, he wrote about being a boy. That may not seem like much, but it was done in an era when naughty boys were not the topic of complete American novels. Aldrich seems to have inspired just about everyone including Mark Twain, whose key protagonist, like Bailey's, is also "Tom." Anyway, we're about to release an entire short book online by Aldrich, and I thought it was about time I dug in deep. It's a rich mine here indeed.
This immersion in the 19th century I've been undergoing has had a side effect. I find myself able to watch old films written then. I sued to avoid them -- House of Seven Gables, Ethan Frome, Scarlet Letter -- I learned to detest this slow-moving fiction in school. The teachers were so ebullient over these novels, and I just could not see the excitement. Anything by George Elliot or Louisa May Alcott would send me running, British or American, didn't matter. Now I think I'm getting the perspective I need to take in these things. I must be slowing down myself, and am fascinated with the details of the 19th century and colonial times that modern movie producers seem to care about. In Ethan Frome, the dreary darkness of winter is evident. The houses are dowdy, smoky from lamp oil. Things look cold, Work looks hard, clothes look hard and smelly. I want to see more, know more, now that I'm coming to terms with this time that is just out of my reach.
Somebody should tell Foster's what a great job they are doing to promote local history -- and I'm not saying that just because they plonked my piece on the front page today. Seriously, this is good stuff, and I'm pleased just to be invited along for the ride. In an era when some newspapers can barely file enough stories to fill the front page, Fosters has consistently gone the extra mile to put editorial content ahead of cash flow. Today's second (of three) 375th Anniversary issues focuses on the 19th century. Special sections editor Greg Bastianelli had a crew of writers working on this pull-out section for at least a month. The history writing is detailed, well-researched and diverse. I bet the average reader has no clue about the cost, planning and effort that goes into a section like this. Then -- ZING -- one day the next paper has taken its place. I'm working desperately hard not to take sides in the healthy local newspaper wars. When the Herald put two reporters on HM Endeavour for a week, their coverage certainly pumped up visitors to the tall ship. Now Fosters has won this battle hands down. Congratulations to Bob Foster, Rod Dougherty and the whole Foster's crew for trying to teach us more about our past. You guys should be passing these issues our in the schools and mailing copies directly to the "history" crowd. Don't be shy.
In the last month I've learned there is a giant difference between history writing and journalism. There shouldn't be, since a good story has its facts checked three times for corroboration. But that's even harder in history writing since most corroborating sources are long dead. Most primary sources --- deeds, court records, letters -- are hard to get at, time consuming to read, dull. So we go with secondary sources. But in many cases, an early secondary source is considered gospel and everyone since has quoted the same, sometimes inaccurate text. An historian would dig deeper, check facts, and has a clearer sense of the context of the times. Journalists tend to burrow in less deeply, with a narrow focus, and very quickly. There is no time to do a thorough study. So if Nathaniel Adams made a mistake in 1824, Charles Brewster copied him in the 1860s, Ray Brighton quoted Brewster in 1970, and I took Ray's word for it. The historians who read my little manuscript questioned everything, demanded sources. It was an enlightening, albeit frustrating job to learn, myself, that real history writing does not happen quickly.
What a pleasure when at least 50 people turned up on Sunday at St. John's Church to view the 1950 Seacoast classic "Lost Boundaries." My job was to introduce the film, but that's not as easy as it sounds. More than half a dozen in the audience were actually IN the film which was shot partly in the church there. Many others knew producer Louis deRochemont personally. He gave the print of the film to the church and it's in rough shape from a half century of screenings. Touted as the first American film to deal dead-on with the question of race relations, the movie fairs quite well today. Sure it's embarrassing to watch white actors pretend to be "light-skinned Negroes" passing as white. But de Rochemont was gutsy for his time, to cussed independent to work in Hollywood or to make movies on same subjects. And besides, this is Portsmouth's movie, with Portsmouth people, on a New Hampshire theme. Warts and all, ya gotta love Louis.
With many historic houses closed for the winter, its nearly time to give thanks for a successful year of celebration. BUT FIRST, there's that hot 375th Gala at the Frank Jones Center on Nov 20. It's my assignment to sell a few tickets and, if I can do it here, I don't have to knock on your door. The $25 ticket price covers a giant buffet, string trio, dancing and reveling, plus a free autographed copy of my little booklet "A Brief History of Portsmouth" which is on its way to the printer next week. No reason not to turn this spot into a press release, so those interested can call 436-3282 which is Petra's home number. She is organizing this colossal event. Also OK to call the City during weekday work hours at 431-2000. Attendance required of all web site readers. No excuses.
People will celebrate anything. Our friend Julian reminded us that it is Guy Fawkes Day with an explosive, animated musical e-mail. I'm nowhere near the Anglophile that Julian is, so I had to read the card to learn that poor Guy was beheaded when his 1605 plot to blow up Parliament in London was discovered. That reminds me of the 1905 explosion here at Henderson's Point near Seavey Island in the Piscataqua when the navy yard was doing a little renovation. Legend says it was, at that point, the largest dynamite explosion in US history. Some people in town thought it would be the end of the world and took to the hills. Others brought picnic baskets to watch. There's one right back at you Julian -- Happy Guy Fawkes Day to you too.
Next time I decide to write a short history of anything, somebody please lock me in the basement. We're in the final 48-hour countdown on the mockup, pictures still missing, copy changing, ads finally clearing up, typos galore, and a new raft of historical inaccuracies. History seems as solid as quicksand when you try to get an even footing. That's why I had print. Books are just too darn permanent. Give me electrons anyday, so forgiving, so flexible. I'm gonna enjoy the 21st century -- move into a nice hologram, find a cyberspouse.
When I was a school instructor, the poor English teachers could never get new books in the budget, so we learned a trick. Because administrators seemed more attuned to sports than culture, we converted our requests into a language they could understand. "This is only six-football-uniforms-worth of books," we'd tell the principal, and he would nod understandingly. Now local history is gaining value. Archives are charging for the use of pictures in their collections. Antiques are sky-high; I was told the other day that a little Portsmouth-built chair was a steal at $20,000. A single plate from a Portsmouth Herald photograph is $75 at another shop. A Gurney tour book from 1902 now costs $60-$100. The only people not making money off history, besides those who run historic sites, are the ones who write about it. To make $5,000 on a yearlong book-writing project is considered big bucks. So perhaps, we need a new conversion table. When we write an article that draws visitors to town, history writers should value the work as 25-Molly-Malone-entrees-worth or 18-Gap-jeans-worth of literature. Politicians could comprehend the value of history by the vote, utilities by the kilowatt, cities by the parking meter. Hey, it's just an idea.
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