Your Place in
A famous historian once
said, “If you want to be immortal, write a journal.” I took this to mean
that leaving something behind as intimate as a journal will help ensure
that, in the future, people will be able to truly get to know that
journal’s author, thus keeping their memory alive.
Heartfelt prose can
convey meaning far beyond the literal so what might a sincerely written
poem convey? Poems have been called the “window into the soul,” because
of their amazing power to reveal. Who knew they might also chronicle?
Harriet’s album proves this possibility conclusively. As I wrote in
the supplement, "The contributors to Harriet's
album teach the power of even academically undistinguished poems to
chronicle and reveal, when one sees what a beautiful portrait had been
painted of her in the words of not just one person but of many people.
This portrait is as clear as any photograph and twice as revealing.”
Journals are a type of
primary source document that historians salivate over. Can a journal
composed exclusively of poetry also produce this reaction in historians?
Not usually, perhaps as a supporting character but certainly not as a
stand alone source. However, Harriet’s use of poetry with the narrative
aspect might change a few minds.
I am able to trace one
side of my own family back to the days of the American Revolution.
Sadly, other than a few odd trinkets left behind, I know nothing of
those people. Who were they? What were they like? What did they believe
in? All these questions will forever remain unknown, there is no record
left to provide answers. On the other hand I can tell you many things
about Harriet and her friends and family. Thanks to the old album, I
feel I really know these people. This is due not only to their
individual efforts but from their collective effort. Because of the
sheer number of participants (from so many different walks of life) we
can statistically analyze these verses for similar feelings and themes.
A good example is the pervasive religious undercurrent in virtually all
the poems, illustrating how religion played a major role in early
American life, no matter one’s station. In this regard I feel Harriet’s
album is superior to a journal written only by a single person;
Harriet’s album does what no typical individual’s journal can, namely,
to present a cross-section through an entire society.
In terms of leaving
something behind for one’s descendants or, alternately, as a primary
source document, to be used by historians to decipher the past, what
might the best medium be for that endeavor? How about photographs? My
feeling on photography is that still images lose their ability to
chronicle effectively as they age. As soon as all those who knew the
person or persons in the photo are gone the photograph, for all intents
and purposes, becomes a mute image. My family has managed to hold onto
some old photos from the early days but other than learning something
about the fashion of the time, these old images tell me nothing about my
ancestors. Likewise, they are not engaging to the younger generation. I
will likely be the last person in my family to care about them.
Many of our new mediums
are superior to still photography as a method of chronicling but will
they survive? For instance, when I began this project, around 2002, I
scanned most of the pages from the old album onto 3.5” floppy disks. I
now want to retrieve those images for use here but am unable to do so as
no one uses floppy disks anymore and I no longer have a floppy disk
drive. Luckily it is a relatively recent case of obsolescence so I am
sure I can still transfer the images to DVD or CD; but it raises the
question: how much longer until that would be impossible? I fear many if
not most of our new high-tech methods of chronicling will become
obsolete, like the 8-track, rendering any information stored on that
We should have fun with
all our new-fangled gadgets but as insurance perhaps a nice, low-tech
method such as hand-writing meaningful poems in an album and passing
that down might insure something survives for future generations,
regardless of whatever technological changes may ensue. If one’s album
ends up without a narrative aspect, believe me, it will be no less
cherished. If, on the other hand, it does have a narrative aspect, then
perhaps future historians will thank you for giving them a window into