The History Gene

The History Gene

Anniversaries can fuel patriotic sanctimony, fill newspaper columns, and generate grandiose statements that bear little relation to reality.

They can also remind us who we are.

Sometimes I feel like the kid in that scary movie The Sixth Sense.

I've lived in Ann Arbor more than 40 years, and for a number of those years I've been writing occasional stories about the University of Michigan's history--long enough that wherever I turn, I see people who are dead or at least long departed.

It can happen on any street corner. I look around and I feel as if I'm looking down through layers of time--my own time, my family's time, the university's time.

Say I'm at the corner of Hill and Washtenaw, standing by the Rock.

Across Washtenaw, behind some trees, there's a stone house with a tower where Henry Simmons Frieze used to live. He was the popular professor of Latin who stepped in as president of the university when President James Angell was on leave as U.S. minister to China. Frieze also did more than anyone else to make music a central part of life at Michigan. That was in the 1880s.

If I pivot to look across Hill Street, I see the rambling house where John Sinclair's Rainbow People lived when Sinclair went to prison for possession of two joints and "Free John" became a pro-pot rallying cry. That was in 1969.

Just up Washtenaw is the Phi Delta Theta house, where my dad was set up on a blind date with my mom, who lived a few blocks east at Kappa Kappa Gamma. That was in 1938. Kitty-corner from the Kappa house, in 2013, I dropped off my younger daughter to start her freshman year at East Quad, where I started my own first year in 1974.

Or say I'm at the corner of State and South U. I turn and see John F. Kennedy on the steps of the Union, talking to a crowd of students and conjuring the Peace Corps off the top of his head. That was late one night in the fall of 1960.

I look over at the Law School and see the sculptors who carved the stone heads of gargoyles for the Lawyers Club archways. That was in 1924. One of those heads is a likeness of Henry Philip Tappan, who lived across the street in the President's House, the only building still standing from the original campus. He stayed from 1852 until the Regents fired him in 1863.

Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, I didn't ask for this second-sightedness. It's just that I was born with a gene that makes me see the past in the present, wherever I happen to be.

I realize it isn't normal.

Most people are preoccupied with the here and now, and for good reason. Managing today is more than enough to worry about. "That's history" is a dismissal. For the average person born without the history gene, the past claims attention only when the calendar notes a hashmark in time--an anniversary.

It's a strange idea, when you think about it--the notion that a particular date on this year's calendar has something in common with the same date a year ago or a century ago, as if time is a circle, and we return again and again to the same point, like the earth around the sun.

I'm more partial to the idea of time as a river, and as the philosopher Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

I wrote for a newspaper long enough that I still feel an inward cringe at the word "anniversary," which editors in desperate need of news would deploy in search of any weak peg to hang a headline on--"The Hula-Hoop Turns 40."

Anniversaries also turn up as weak excuses for patriotic sanctimony. The farther some historic event sinks into the past, the more likely it is that someone will say dumb things about it on the anniversary. In the early 1990s, you couldn't get through a week without another 50-year marker for World War II, and the people who talked the loudest about those memorial dates usually knew the least about what that global nightmare had really been like.

Still, there is something about an anniversary. Like the nearness of a hanging, it concentrates the mind.

"Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years," says Ebenezer Scrooge to his callers on Christmas Eve.

"He died seven years ago, this very night."

That anniversary provides the occasion for Scrooge to be haunted, and, apart from Marley's ghost, the spirits are peculiarly Scrooge's own--his past, his present, his future. On the anniversary of Marley's death, the spirits inscribe a red-letter point on Scrooge's map in time.

And that, I think, is what an anniversary is good for--or, to say it better, why it matters to feel connected to the past. The past, when seen as a companion, lends us a system of echolocation, a way of knowing where we are in time, and thus of knowing who we are. The past is ground beneath our feet, not always solid but better than thin air. That's a comfort in any era, and certainly in this one, with so much else in flux.

As it is with a person, so it is with an institution. When a university has its past in mind, it knows what it is and what it is for. In this place, for a long time now, professors have taught and students have studied. Scientists here have scrutinized the universe. Scholars at Michigan have helped to build the academic disciplines--whole new ways of delineating knowledge. Decade after decade after decade, students here have asked questions and argued.

In a few months the university will enter its 200th year. This year the School of Public Health turns 75. "Who cares?" people will say. "That's history."
I hope it isn't only people like me, blessed and cursed with the history gene, who will find that dismissal impossible to understand.

James Tobin, author and historian, earned a PhD in history at Michigan and teaches narrative nonfiction at Miami of Ohio. His stories about U-M history appear online at the U-M Heritage Project  and in the alumni monthly Michigan Today. His most recent book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency (Simon & Schuster, 2013).