One reason why it's a good idea to delve into primary sources, when you're studying a period, is the sheer visceral manner in which the facts of daily life are dispensed. I had always known that disease and death was rampant in the American past. But it's one thing to be told that, and it's another to actually see how Americans living through it talked about it.
I'm currently in the midst of reading Children Of Pride, a collection of letters written by a slave-holding family in Georgia. One thing that's clear from the family letters is people die, they die often and they die mysteriously. Babies are killed by croup. Mothers come down with scarlet fever. Merchants are felled by diphtheria. Planters become consumptives. Lawyers are taken down by yellow fever. Dysentery haunts the cities. And then you get to the treatments--painful blisterings, dosings with ginger syrup, bleedings, forced evacuations and other manner of quackery.
I think, on some level, when we marvel at how the world has become more egalitarian, we think about King and Lincoln. But do we think about that changes relationship to, say, Louis Pasteur or Henry Ford? How much of our march toward humanism is really technological, a shift from a slavery of human, to a mastery of nature? What were the effects of, say, Koch's work on tuberculosis on how we came to see ourselves in relation to each other? Was the retreat of death a boon for humanism? Was it a bane for religion? Laundry used to be a heavy-duty chore, mostly performed by women. When washing became automated, how did that effect women's notions of self? How did it influence feminism? Is humanism a luxury, afforded by individual longevity?
In seeking to understand the mind of slave-holders, increasingly, I find it essential to consider factors beyond slave-holding, itself. Last week I was looking at antebellum clothing at the Fashion Institute of Technology's museum. I've been thinking a lot about furniture, and what these people consider a vacation. I don't even know how to explain. Everything can't be told. At some point, it must be shown.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power