To Make the Dead Live

May 01, 1991|By JAMES D. DILTS

Newspapers are the stuff of history, though their current practitioners seldom have much time for history in their daily jobs, which is probably just as well. If a reporter wrote with the conscious knowledge that instead of his editor, a historian was going to call up his story on the screen some day, it might well affect his performance. The fact that daily newspapers deal with the here and now is their great service to readers; its corollary is that at least since the Enlightenment, they were also there, then, which makes them invaluable to historians.

I know, having made the transition from city room to stackroom, from being a local reporter to a local historian, that it isn't easy.

The first day on my new job, I went to the wrong door of the Maryland Historical Society -- the one to the former Pratt mansion, which is always locked -- with a cup of coffee and reporter's notebook, on assignment as it were. In my zeal to begin a dialogue with the dead, I pulled the knob off the door and spilled the coffee on my clothes. I replaced the knob, found the entrance, and a guard inside who said I couldn't bring coffee into the building, and I knew it was going to be a long day.

It has been, but there have been some adventures en route. It was with tremendous excitement that I discovered the British historians Lewis Namier and Richard Cobb. Namier said the proper subject of history was human beings engaged in ''concrete events fixed in time and space.'' That was something a journalist could grasp. History was supposed to be popular, he said, even have ''entertainment value.'' A liberating thought compared to the cliometricians with their hermetic and incessant micro-studies.

Namier was the mentor of Cobb, who took his theories even further. Cobb believed that ''the writing of history is one of the fullest and most rewarding expressions of an individual personality.

He was proud of being a local historian. His aim, he said, was to let real people speak for themselves, ''to make the dead live,'' and to fill in the inevitable gaps in the story through ''imaginative reconstruction.'' He talked of the relationship between topography and history, between place and a sense of the past, between literature and landscape. Cobb's medium was narrative, his goal: ''concrete history.''

With their thoughts burning in my brain, I could hardly wait to meet my characters, find out what they did, see where they worked. But first I met a lot of librarians, without whom no writer could do his job. Most were selfless and dedicated, a few had peculiar notions. I was soon hot on the trail of a 19th-century century political fixer and bagman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and had just about finished tracking him down when I came across, in a local institution, a pamphlet containing his defense. It had never gone to the bindery; the tops of the pages were still fused together. Probably no one had ever read it, which made it all the more exciting.

I was about to cut the thing open with my knife when I thought better of it, having previously run into difficulty through such rash acts, and instead showed it to the librarian, who said it couldn't be opened, because it would destroy the integrity of the pamphlet, I guess the way opening an envelope to read the letter destroys the integrity of the envelope.

It took me several hours of peering in through the bottom and side of the pages to find out what was there. (It turned out to have been worth the trouble.) This sort of experience prepares a new author for the second question he is most often asked -- after ''Have you found a job yet?'' -- which is ''What took you so long?''

Getting out in the field offered a welcome diversion from the stacks, and the chance to encounter some incredulous natives. Having decided to walk, in segments, the B&O's entire 380-mile length from Baltimore to Wheeling, its original destination on the Ohio River, I headed one rainy March afternoon, alone, with no light, into the mouth of the three-quarter-mile Kingwood Tunnel, just beyond the Cheat River in West Virginia. It drops 46 feet from east to west and in the middle, you cannot see daylight at either end, nor what is beneath your feet.

When I stopped, the only sound was water dripping somewhere in the blackness. I thought of rats, and falling rocks, but mostly heavy coal trains pulled by diesel engines that would fill the tunnel with acrid smoke while I huddled in one of the coffin-shaped blind arches that line the side and offer a refuge of sorts. Fortunately, no trains came, but by the time I emerged from the other end, I was moving at a dead run.

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