In which I consider the nature of historical periods–and moving

Despite good intentions, and a couple of creative efforts,*  I succumbed to radio silence here in the Margins while My Own True Love and I moved four whole blocks.  The construction isn’t quite done, but we’re half-way settled into the new house. IMG_0617(Okay, maybe a quarter of the way.  Between us we have a lot of books to unpack and stuff onto shelves organize. )

I may not have been writing about history for the last two weeks, but I’ve certainly been thinking about it.  At the risk of revealing too clearly the zigzag way my mind works,  here’s an odd bit that I’ve been mulling over:

The relationship of historical figures to historical periods is often complicated and occasionally misleading.  Several months ago I was stunned to realize that Woodrow Wilson was a child during the American Civil War–a fact that fundamentally shaped his policies in World War I.  This past week I was equally surprised to learn that Charles Dickens, whose novels helped shape our images of Victorian London, was in fact born in the reign of George III.**  When Victoria took the throne in 1837, Dickens was 25 years old and already a successful novelist. ( The Pickwick Papers  had met with unprecedented success, with each issue selling 40,000 copies a month.***) Oliver Twist is set during the reign of George IV–making it an iconic work about the Industrial Revolution and the growth of cities but not an iconic portrait of Victorian London.   

Therefore what, you ask?  I’m not sure yet. Perhaps no more than a reminder that the boundaries of historical time periods are as fluid and artificial  as the boundaries of nations. Perhaps a hint that we need to look more closely at books with titles like [Historical Figure of Your Choice] And His Time.

I’d love to hear what some of you think about this.  Do you have favorite examples of important figures who straddle periods like the Colossus of Rhodes?  Can you put me out of my misery by explaining why it’s important–or alternately why it isn’t?  Is this just the befuddlement of a person overwhelmed by packing boxes, construction details, and the overwhelming number of colors they make bath towels in?

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s an unpacked box of books calling my name.

*  My apologies to those of you who were confused by the re-runs.  We did not take off to Belgium in the middle of the move,though there were moments when it was tempting.

**For that matter, so was Queen Victoria.

*** A salutary reminder that today’s genre best seller may well be next century’s literary classic and that today’s heralded literary genius may be lucky to find a fading half- life in someone’s doctoral dissertation.


  1. Carol on June 12, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    I think that these realizations apply to anyone, not just great historical figures. We are who we are as a result of past events, which may or may not have ever graced the pages of a historical review.

    The more we learn about people’s stories, the more we realize powerful events that shape how they step into time beyond them.

    • pamela on June 12, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      Carol: You make a good point here: most of us straddle historical periods and all of us are shaped by the events of our time. The difference for “historical figures” (a term I may want to think through) is that we often plug them into one historical period instead of taking their broader picture into account.

      • Carol on June 12, 2014 at 6:51 pm

        On reflection, I knew what you meant by “historical figures” and thought how interesting it is when you have a lightbulb moment and say, “wow, they experienced THAT!!!!?” It makes the people so much more interesting and give us the opportunity to understand them in a more well-rounded way. Like knowing the political scene of the country when the pioneers were first settling. WOW. (I always go back to Laura Ingalls Wilder and trying to make a bigger picture of her time)

        I guess I also think, though, that we can have the same realization about the general Mr. and Ms. walking down the street, but their “big experiences” maybe never made headline news or history books.

        Everybody is a walking story. 🙂

        • pamela on June 14, 2014 at 4:29 pm

          I know you knew what I meant by historical characters. It just dawned on me that the term is problematic and worth musing on. I may have to borrow this line: “Everybody is a walking story.”

  2. Carol on June 12, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Favorite figures who straddle time….

    There are many!

    Closer to home…my grandparents who knew the depression. My uncles who went to war. My parents who experienced JFK. My friends who experienced Desert Storm, 911, and are experiencing Afghanistan now.

    What about my own small circle, too, though. We have experienced flooding and fires in Colorado. Blue-in-the-face children who had to be taken to the ER. Babies being born. Beautiful conversations with family and friends over meals. We aren’t on the pages of a book, but our life circumstances are just as powerful and would make a person say “wow, you went through THAT?”

    What’s your story? Come have coffee with me sometime.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.