Evolution of a History by Fred Wilbur

Photo of stacked books
Photo by Fred Wilbur

Unlike my previous writing efforts, I am presently engaged in compiling a history of the local garden club (of all things!) The subject is not one I would have chosen and I never thought I would get my knees dirty in this way. It chose me.

By way of a short history, the local garden club donated four or five boxes of their records— which begin with the founding in 1935— to the county historical society. As a member of the society, I happened upon these records and wrote four articles on them for our newsletter. I admit a heady fascination with the leatherette minutes books, the “punch and ribbon” assembled yearbooks, the artfully decorated scrapbook pages, miscellaneous letters, club financial reports, and other ephemera. As an archaeologist has many pieces with which to tell a compelling story, I realized there was enough primary material to write a book.

Pretending to be scholarly, I read the materials and made notes, researched on line, read books about the Great Depression and the national garden club movement, made lists, read some more, and searched the society’s archives. I was visiting a foreign land as historians are wont to do. Face-value facts seemed an anomaly in our times of mis- and dis-information. How could I lend these facts verisimilitude for our dystopian society? It was a different time.

I had the notion to document the first fifty years of the Club, each source and quotation referenced, nailed down, to concentrate on the wonderful story. And the gaps in the records, scribal error, and contradictions only goaded me to treat the records as gospel.

After writing, re-writing, inserting new material, printing, then back-tracking, my editor (and school teacher wife) was skeptical of all that arcane data. Revision became my dreaming, squirming, at night. I wanted the reader to enjoy the mystery of history, so to speak, to enjoy the discoveries made of correspondences and contradictions. I wrote in a cover-my-ass style. What, I wondered, if some present garden club lady disputed some characterization of their “she told me so” grandmother? What if my introductory disclaimer was too vaguely worded? I worried.

My editor insisted I think of my audience. At no time did I have delusions that my work would sell more than a few dozens of copies to benefit the historical society. Does the reader care where I got my facts, not that they could Google or fact check what was clearly written in the Minutes? It was almost a mystical experience of “Let go, let go, let the mind be free.” I started scrubbing the manuscript of references, of phrases like “loose sheets,” of codes of origin like [M IV {24 Aug} 6 Feb 44] for instance, or NCGC YB 56/57. Footnotes and end notes were too academic and dissertation-like for the anticipated reader who would be eager to recognize familiar names and places.

A certain satisfaction began to creep into my labor, but then my editor handed back a section with the gentle statement that my tenses were helter-skelter, swerving from past to present to past. In the discussions which followed (with coffee and scones), we settled on the sin I had committed. I had written about events in the past as if they were alive in the sources spread on the table in present tense. It took me some time to separate the events of the past from my present resource ‘friends.’  She told me I had to avoid the sources as if they were figments speaking to me, but instead tell my reader what the women did.

I realized that, as much as historians excavate the past, they cannot know every nook and nuance, every faux pas, or cranny of where information could hide. Just think of all those questions you never asked your parents or grandparents before they were gone. In the same way, as Alan Bender said, you can’t hammer a nail over the internet, history has a hard time describing the experience of smell, a lover’s embarrassment, an insulting look of disapproval or an undefined misgiving.

Writing history—perhaps the tenth draft of some passages, and five reams of printer paper later—is descriptive like an Impressionist painting which tries to capture an ever-changing scene. And in so doing, how can the historian avoid the presumption of assumption; how can he capture the motion of a good story when, perhaps, fact is stranger anyway?

Frederick Wilbur
Frederick Wilbur received his BA from the University of Virginia and an MA from the University of Vermont. He has authored three books on architectural and decorative woodcarving. His two poetry collections are As Pus Floats the Splinter Out and Conjugation of Perhaps. His work has appeared in many print and on-line reviews including Shenandoah, The Atlanta Review, The Comstock Review, The Dalhousie Review, Rise Up Review, and Mojave River Review. He was awarded the Stephen Meats Award by Midwest Quarterly (2017).

Follow us!
Share this post with your friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *