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Stumbling over history

Posted: March 23, 2014 - 12:01am

– Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, 19th-century Russian author of the epics Anna Karenina and War and Peace, was no dunce when it came to filling his novels with historic details. He just found so little comfort in recorded history that his philosophical and often troubled thoughts turned up as fiction rather than fact.

Most of us don’t gild the truth with 1,000-page tomes as he did, or care if we “don’t know much about his-to-ree,” as the song goes. But what do we do when we don’t know the answer to some history question? Stumble over our words, bluff and hope no one else knows the answer, either?

I thought of the venerable Russian a few days ago, not because his country is making history itself now over its leader’s intrusion into neighboring Ukraine, but because I was speaking to this year’s Columbia County Youth Leadership Group about Columbia County history. They wanted to know about the “Non-Internet Research” I used in preparation for my recent book on that topic.

Considering these students weren’t even born when I began this project 18 years ago, it was a perfect example of the difference between life before and after the Internet. Like B.C. and A.D, the way we calculate historic time, these young people and I were life spans apart on how we search for information.

This will be fun, I thought. First, I’ll check my list of sources: 112 books by 97 authors, several regional periodicals and – even I was surprised – just three Internet sites. Then, I’ll caution them about trusting the Internet, especially the popular “Wikipedia.” Then, reality intervened.

The reason I used all those sources was that they didn’t all agree. So, in order to reach my goal of at least approaching accuracy, I had to judge what I assumed was the truth based on “the preponderance of the evidence.” In short: I had as many problems with “Non-Internet Research” as today’s generation has with cyberspace.

Teacher and author Richard Lederer would understand. Presumably, unlike the students I was addressing, he decided to rewrite the history of the world as if it had happened the way some of his students described it. For example:

■ The Egyptians, called mummies, lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot.

■ Without the Greeks we wouldn’t have history – they invented columns including the Ionic. They also had myths; a myth is a female moth. Socrates was a famous Greek who died from an overdose of wedlock.

■ The Romans got their name because they never stayed in one place very long. The Ides of March killed Julius Caesar because they thought he wanted to be their King. ... Nero was a cruel tyrant who tortured his subjects by playing the fiddle for them.

■ The Government of England was a limited mockery ... their greatest writer was William Shakespeare, who lived in Windsor with his merry wives.

■ Christopher Columbus discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic ... his ships were the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Fe. One of the causes of America’s Revolutionary War was that the English put tacks in their tea.

■ The 19th century was a time of great inventions and ideas: Samuel Morse invented a code for telepathy; Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis; and Karl Marx became one of the Marx Brothers.

Lederer’s findings may be extreme but, I had to confess, in my ongoing research into the history of Columbia County, I found some female moths too:

■ Columbia County is bordered on the west by the Savannah River;

■ Before the Civil War, county leaders took part in the Succession Convention;

■ The creek that flows into the canal below the Savannah Rapids Pavilion today was spelled five different ways: Read, Reid, Rede, Red, and – finally – Reed.

■ Although some sources said William Few left Georgia in 1799 and became the Mayor of New York City, he actually went to Fishkill Landing, a smaller town north of the City, and was an alderman, the counterpart to our county commissioner.

The moral of this story? No matter on which side of the “Time Table” we live – B.C., A.D, or Post-Internet – as Solomon wrote in the Book of Proverbs, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety.”

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