Westborough Local History Pastimes – October 16, 2020

Marcel Proust, 1895

Memory, Identity, and History

In the opening to Marcel Proust’s epic novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (variously translated from the French as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past), the narrator reflects on those times when we lie half-asleep in bed and inhabit a world that seamlessly flows in and between dreams, memory, and our waking identity. During these moments, we lose track of who we are. What is dream and what is reality? Are the memories that pass through our head real, what is our present self, and is there a difference between the two?

We are who we are as individuals because we have memories that are unique to ourselves. Memory anchors us to our past. Without it, how do we know who we are? We only overcome those moments of indecision about who we are, those moments that Proust describes, after we slowly piece back together in our heads the primary narrative of our past that we use to formulate both our present identity and our sense of who we are. Once morning arrives, we get out of bed, start our day, and continue to add to the narrative of our life.

In similar ways, memory is central to our notions and practice of history. History is the cumulation of narratives that we tell ourselves in order to help us better understand who we are as a people. This cultural memory helps us to explain why we as a people do some of the things that we do, believe some of the things we believe, and got to be who we are.

But as central as memory is to shaping who we are as individuals and who we are as a society, we also know that memory can be faulty. As individuals, we sometimes remember events as we want to remember them, not as they truly happened. We even forget large portions of our lives entirely on a regular basis. We forget because many moments of our life are so seemingly mundane that they would take up too much brain space to make remembering them worthwhile. At other times we forget because some events are too traumatic or simply unpleasant to revisit, and in these cases, such forgetting can happen either willfully or unconsciously.

We often distort memories or suppress them because their reality does not neatly fit into the primary narrative of our past. Better to sacrifice the individual memory than to upend entirely the narrative that we have been piecing together in our head throughout our life. Of course, such distortions draw into question the validity of our own personal narrative, and when that narrative is corrupted by so much distortion that it impedes us from functioning in reality, many of us go into therapy in an attempt to rewrite it.

Faulty memory also happens in history. Sometimes we discover evidence that had been hidden away or went unnoticed for whatever reason. But like our individual memory, we are always “forgetting” elements of lived experience when we write history. We highlight certain facts and suppress others in order to create a more coherent narrative. And like our individual memory, sometimes these forms of “forgetting” are willful while others are unconsciously carried out.

When the distortion we use to uphold the history that we tell ourselves becomes too great in the face of contradictory evidence or competing narratives that can better accommodate known evidence, such historical narratives drift more and more into myth. Myths can still tell us a lot about ourselves both as individuals and as a society, but such stories have also lost their grounding in truth and consequently their grounding in history.

After I drafted the above reflections, I saw an article in the New York Times on September 29 about a group of historians calling to make “More History.” The idea is to fill in more details in our histories, details that have either been forgotten or ignored, so that we can tell a fuller story about ourselves than we have in the past. History, like much else in our society lately, has become politicized and is used to divide us. Maybe now is the time to engage in some historical therapy, to recover some of the gaps in the national narrative that we tell ourselves, so that we can create a better, fuller, and less divided understanding of who we are and how we got here.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

And see below for some ways to add “More History” to our understanding of Westborough.

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Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Diary, September 5-7, 1774
(American Antiquarian Society)

The Ebenezer Parkman Project – Every time I read sections of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s diary, I learn something new and profound about Westborough’s colonial history. Parkman scholar and professor Ross W. Beales, Jr. has compiled a list of all the instances when Africans and African-Americans appear in Parkman’s diary (PDF link). Surprisingly, his list is eleven pages long and its contents raise questions about our common notions about New England and its participation and role in the practices of slavery.

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The Westborough Chronotype office and printing press

Another rich source for discovering hidden or forgotten aspects of Westborough history is our deep archive of historical newspapers, which go back to 1849. The archive is freely available online, so pull up an early issue or two and be prepared to be transported to another place and time.

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American Memory was an early Library of Congress digitization program, but the library has recently migrated all of these early collections into their centralized list of all digitized collections. The breadth and depth of content is breathtaking, and there is sure to be some topic that will catch your eye and lead you down into a rabbit hole of strange yet familiar history.

Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” 1865

Westborough Local History Pastimes – September 18, 2020

Nuance, Complexity, and Ambiguity

History often teaches us to embrace ambiguity, to understand there aren’t simple answers to complex questions, and Americans tend to like simple answers to complex questions. So the challenge is to use history to help the public feel comfortable with nuance and complexity.

Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, New York Times interview

As we have been moving out of the Industrial Age and into the Digital Age over the last few decades, both our educational system and our society has placed more and more emphasis on STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine). By their nature, these fields seek and require black and white answers to our questions, and as computers rule more aspects of our daily lives, the very underpinning of our culture keeps moving towards being governed by a binary system of ones and zeroes.

This STEM emphasis, however, has often come at the expense of “softer” fields like the humanities, arts, and social sciences, which often require zeroes, ones, and twos (if not threes, fours and fives).

As we have progressively transformed our life and culture into digital surrogates and have pursued mastery over nature and our environment through science, I ask: have we been losing our ability to ask complex questions, to hold several answers to the same question in our minds at the same time, to see the world through multiple lenses, and to compromise when situations require it?

One or two humanities classes in a liberal arts curriculum is not enough to develop the complex skills needed to perform these feats of mental and social dexterity, so the hope is that we continue to pursue them in our adult lives. It is difficult if not impossible to pursue these ends by ourselves, so our society has created cultural institutions, such as libraries and museums, to help us out.

As both a librarian and a cultural historian, part of my role, as Lonnie Bunch indicates above, is to help people become comfortable with nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. Below are some suggested activities to help you exercise some of your cultural muscles and think about the world in new and exciting ways.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

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View First Day of School Photos Submitted to the Westborough ArchiveThe WPL’s Kids’ Department and the Westborough Center has teamed up to collect First Day of School Photos during the start of this unusual school year, and many are available now in the Westborough Digital Repository. There is still time to submit your child’s photo and tell us about your experiences on this important day.

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I don’t need to tell you that the season of politics is upon us. Even though many colleges and universities have “Political Science” programs, politics in the end is more of an art than a science—the 2016 surprise election certainly taught us that! No politician is going to make all of your views about how our government should be run happen, as much as that person may try to convince you otherwise or use media outlets to try to bring you into a single line of thinking. The art of politics comes in when trying to decide which politician represents your interests more, but can still get elected through building a coalition of other people with views different from your own. Ask for and expect too much, and you may end up with nothing. In many ways, the current gridlock in the federal government comes from expectations and promises that we should be unsatisfied with not getting everything we want.

The time to make your artful decision is near. The Westborough Center is partnering with the Westborough Town Clerk to celebrate National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, Sept. 22 and to encourage all U.S. citizens to vote. Make sure you can enact your civic responsibility: Register to Vote (or Confirm Your Voter Registration). Registering takes only a few minutes to complete, so do it today!

Suggested reading:

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Phyllis Shafly demonstrating against the Equal Rights Amendment, February 4, 1977. (Library of Congress)

On Tuesday, the Westborough Center and the Westborough Historical Society co-sponsored a talk by Barbara Berenson on Women’s Rights after the 19th Amendment,” and you can view it now on Westborough TV. People who attended the talk agree that it was entertaining and informative—and as an added bonus, if you stay until the end you can see Kris Allen in her Woman’s Suffrage outfit ask a question!

Berenson is author of Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. Her talk discusses how women fared politically and legally once they finally won access to the ballot and connects the passage of the 19th Amendment to the struggles to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in the 1920’s.