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Accentuating the Positive in History

While looking for a specific source work in the library the other day, I had one of those serendipitous moments of unexpected discovery: a posthumously published book by Wilma Dykeman. I grabbed it, checked it out, and moved it to the top of my reading-in-progress pile. What I originally had been seeking would just have to wait.

For any readers who might not be familiar with Dykeman, she was an Appalachian novelist and historian and professor of history at the University of Tennessee. Born (1920) and reared in western North Carolina, she moved just over the mountains to Newport, Tennessee, where she was living at the time of her death in 2006.

I had read many of her articles, but the first book-length work of hers I read was Tennessee: A History (1975). Always slow to read fiction, it was only a few years ago that I read perhaps her most famous novel, The Tall Woman (1962). Having enjoyed both books, I was eager to read about her growing-up years. Perhaps I could learn something from her life and work that I might apply to improve my own writing.


The title of the work I found in the library is Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood. Although she had written it shortly after she had graduated from Northwestern University and married, when she was in her early-to mid-twenties, she had set it aside and never submitted the manuscript. Not even her family members knew of its existence.


After her death, her son, while searching through her papers, discovered the 200-page manuscript. He read it, learning much new information about his mother, and wanted to share it with her many fans. The University of North Carolina Press published it in 2016.


Of all the interesting things the work reveals about Dykeman, her background, and her works, the one that stood out most for me was her concern for the preservation of history--the good, the bad, and even the ugly. But most of all she wanted people to realize the importance of knowing one's history and how he had come to be what he is today.

This concern is illustrated in one incident she related about an old man who was telling about the history of the church Dykeman attended as a child, a church that he and his father had helped build--felling the trees, grubbing the land, establishing the foundation, and giving financially to get it started and to keep it going.


As the old man laid out the church's history, Dykeman wrote, "Everyone was restless to leave. They felt no sense of the pastness of life, of the earnest history which this man had lived and could tell about. . . ."


Discouraged, the man returned to his seat and, staring straight ahead at the pulpit, reflected on that past. "[H]e had helped to build [that church]. . . . [H]e had worked the land his father had cleared, and he had made it earn a living for him, too. Not only a living, but some extra. The extra he saved and gave to foreign mission, and to a small Baptist college near. All this before he had a bathroom in his house, and never yet, any electricity."


But no one seemed to care. All they were interested in was the next excitement. Such as that which came in the materialism that raged before the Crash in 1929. Then they had panicked and had suffered. But those who had lived simply, like that old man, got by and survived.


The account reminded me of a recent blog post by historian Brion McClanahan titled "This Is Why Young People Hate History." They hate it, he opined, "because it [as taught today] is centered on guilt."


Like the country musician who described that genre as featuring only "somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs," history as taught today is designed to make everyone feel guilty for allegedly wronging someone else rather than focusing on much that has been done that is good throughout history.


Who in his right mind wants perpetually to be told he's bad? No one wants to be beaten down and denigrated, especially not for the mistakes of others. Such an approach to history leads only to despair, not positive achievement and uplifting of self or others. It produces only division, conflict, and even hatred. But maybe that's the very reason people are using that method! They think it will help them achieve their nefarious ends.


Dykeman had it right, and she did her part to make history interesting, enlightening, and positive, encouraging a striving to do and be one's best rather than driving people on a race to the bottom. She knew that knowing one's roots results in positive efforts either to improve their own lot in life and that of others around them in the process or to make them determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.


What role will you and I play in passing on our own family, community, state, and national history?

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