Friday, October 21, 2011
In 1770 fire destroyed Shadwell, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. Burned, along with the building, were nearly all the documents relating to the first 27 years of Jefferson’s life. If there was a “Rosebud” in his childhood, we’ll never know.
Because the Founding Fathers left such an extensive paper trail, the loss of Jefferson’s early documents may not seem like such a big deal. Up to that point he’d hardly been in the public eye, and the rest of his life was highly documented, both by his own documents and those produced by others, including Adams and Franklin, who dealt with him regularly.
Still, you have to wonder. Jefferson was brilliant, dreamy and ethereal, possibly the most idealistic man ever elected president. He was pretty much that way from the time he entered the public record, but was there a formative event or events in his childhood that explains some of his character? Rosebud, the boyhood sled in Citizen Kane, was a pat explanation of the sort so beloved by Hollywood and so seldom seen in real life. A Rosebud for Jefferson is unlikely, but if you’re a historian or journalist, more information, even when inconclusive, is always better.
Much of history lies behind metaphorical doors, closed to us forever. When the library at Alexandria burned, we lost much of our knowledge of the ancient world. Other manuscripts were lost during the Middle Ages, and still others survived, undiscovered for centuries in some monastery or other.
Stacy Schiff, in her book Cleopatra, makes much of how little is known of her heroine’s life and times, and how much has to be inferred by the historian, weighing a range of sketchy and incomplete evidence. In such an instance, a historian’s work becomes largely that of an intuitive artist.
Even in more recent times, there are things we just don’t know, and not always because a fire destroyed the evidence. What, for instance, were Lincoln’s religious beliefs, if any? He didn’t oblige us, as Ben Franklin did, by writing a detailed letter on the subject months before he died. Was Lincoln a non-churchgoing Christian? An atheist? A freethinker who conceived of a vague higher power and incorporated many of the teachings of Jesus into his philosophy of right living? I lean toward the third, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove any of those notions.
We now live in an age where almost everything is photographed or recorded on video, and even so part of the visual record gets lost. In the early days of television, many of the shows, including the newscasts, weren’t saved. Incredibly, the people at the networks didn’t think they were valuable. If live, they often weren’t recorded, and if recorded, they were often erased and recorded over. It was big news a while back when a kinescope was found of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees. It was one of the greatest baseball games ever played, and all we have is that one recording, which Bing Crosby, a part owner of the Pirates, ordered made because he was out of the country at the time.
Nor will even the newest technology save everything. Ask Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory, a Southern California comedy club. For years he videotaped performances that included priceless footage of future stars in their formative years. To preserve the video he turned it over to an online backup storage company, which, in some unexplained way, lost 1,500 hours of it. Proving, I suppose, that it doesn’t take a fire to wipe out history. A speck of dust on a hard drive will suffice.