I’ve always been a bit of a history geek. Well, okay, pretty much a full-blown history geek. My second major in college was history, not because I planned it that way, but because almost all the elective courses I took for fun were in the History department. Come my senior year, I found that all those credits actually added up to a second degree. Lest you think I was a practical youth, my ‘major’ major netted me an equally bankable English degree. Hey, at least it wasn’t in philosophy or basket weaving…
While I will give almost any history book a try, one of my favorite types features the ‘they’re all doomed’ scenario. These are the stories of expeditions, explorers, military campaigners, or just ordinary citizens who come face to face with imminent destruction. The historical reason for their demise varies, but there are often few, or no, survivors. While gruesome, this sense of doom adds a layer of mystery to the historical tale. The fewer witnesses, the harder it is to piece together just what happened and historians are forced to speculate. Listed below are a few historical events worth revisiting to find historians’ new takes on ill-fated individuals.
Trouble on the Bay of Naples
My interest in the fate of the ancient city of Pompeii was recently reignited (ha-ha!) by an exhibit at the Pacific Science Center titled Pompeii: The Exhibition. What actually destroyed Pompeii is hardly a mystery; the smoldering nearby Mt. Vesuvius and lots and lots of ash provide the obvious answer. What is intriguing is trying to piece together how the people of Pompeii lived and died by sifting through the ample evidence. There are many great books that try to do just that and the library has a great collection of them. Recently, though, I came across a title that has jumped to the top of my ‘must read’ list: From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town. This book is a history of the archeological site after its discovery and the way it has influenced visitors for centuries. A varied number of interesting people were influenced by the site including Mozart, Dickens, Twain, Renoir, Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.
A Bad, or Good Depending on Your Perspective, Day at the Little Bighorn
As with Pompeii, the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry by a combined force of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho nations in June of 1876 has a long paper trail with many books written about the event. What exactly happened to Custer and the troops he personally lead on that day (other than the obvious: they died) is a source of endless speculation. Having been influenced early on by Evan Connell’s book Son of the Morning Star and the film Little Big Man I must admit that I have a rather dim view of Custer, but that doesn’t stop my curiosity for trying to find out the particulars of his fate. While not the newest, the last book I read on the topic was The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick. The work does cover the final battle in gripping detail, but it is far from a simple military history. Instead, Philbrick, fleshes out the characters and careers of all the participants. This gives the events much more significance and breathes new life into a tale that has been told many times.
The Frozen North (or South)
While being a fan of all doomed exploratory expeditions (yeah I’m weird) I’ve always been particularly fond of attempts made in frozen conditions. In addition to the bleak landscape and the incredible endurance of the explorers to admire, there is an absurdity to these expeditions that I find irresistible. Risking your life to find an arbitrary concept like a pole or the Northwest Passage is pretty amazing/borderline insane when you think about it. Whether you go north or south there are plenty of books about these ice encrusted missions here at the library. A recent standout for me was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette by Hampton Sides. This book is the story of an 1879 expedition to reach the North Pole led by U.S. naval officer George DeLong. Based on a faulty assumption, the odd notion that there was an open ocean surrounding the North Pole, the expedition quickly got locked into the pack ice. As you can imagine, things didn’t go well from there. The author creates a gripping narrative full of struggle and sacrifice with a predictably dire outcome for many of the participants.
So, if there is a little history geek in you as well, check out a few of these historical stories of the doomed. Now all I need to make my life complete is a film version of The Last Stand staring Bill Paxton.
The vast sense of time–history–from the Roman Empire through Little big Horn to the echos of those moments today–requires a constant readjustment in my understanding of the present. Thank you for inviting me to make that effort. Thank you for reminding me that books–those that provoke the best questions through particular stories of a time and place–are rich resources. Hooray for public libraries.