Friday, January 31, 2014

I sometimes wonder if there is really such a thing as "history." Or who our true historians are.

I'm no writer, but I can do research and put the facts in order.

Where my wonderment comes in is when I am researching something obscure, some dusty corner (hey! I'm cliche-ridden! this is why I'm no writer) of forgotten time which I find interesting or which illuminates some larger sequence of events. A lot of the time, writing about these events or people is hard, because so little work has been done in the area. And yet, almost invariably, I find that there's a narrative somewhere. Some reporter has written a paragraph or two outlining the sequence of events. Some writer somewhere has already concocted a half-page of biography that outlines the person's life and achievements.

It's said (by those cliché-writers, again) that the news is the "first rough draft of history." I've come to agree. News isn't history while it's being written; it's news. But "old news" is history. It's the juice of history, which, if allowed to age and ferment, can form the "first rough draft of history."

After having written a few biographies of people (Arnold Miller, Ben Gold, J.J. Hagerman, Cornelius Shea, Daniel J. Tobin, Dave Beck, David J. McDonald, Frank Fitzsimmons, J. Warren Madden, Jerry Horan, Joey Glimco, Joseph Yablonski, Nelson Cruikshank, Ralph Fasanella, Ron Carey, William McFetridge, Cao Van Vien, Frank Rio, J. Ogden Armour‎, James Rand, Jr., John G. McCullough, John Jacobs, Stanley Forman Reed, Webb Miller, Roger Putnam, Roger Touhy), I find that there's actually precious little biography out there. Instead, I end up going to "original second-hand sources" like newspaper archives or contemporary plaudits from friends or admirers.

Let's look at Cornelius Shea. Here is a man who created the first truly national union, the Teamsters. For only five years, he ran his union. Yet, in those five years, he roiled and snarled and devastated the city of Chicago with massive strike after massive strike. Hundreds of thousands of workers were out on the streets. No food in homes. No traffic moved. Here is the man who became so corrupt that the word "racketeer" was coined to describe him. Here is a man who, after his ouster from the union, became so notorious in Chicago mob circles that he was repeatedly and unsuccessfully prosecuted. But almost no biography exists of him outside yellowing newspaper clippings. (Cliché! Cliché!)

Or take Cao Van Vien. He was the Chairman of the South Vietnamese Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1965 to 1975. Alone among the South Vietnamese generals, he stayed in one command and was well-known for being an excellent general. His absolute commitment to being a "professional soldier" who did not meddle in politics made him almost unique among South Vietnam's military, and his role as JCS Chairman helped stabilize the country politically after repeated coups in 1963 and 1964. When a coup to topple Nguyen Cao Ky nearly occurred in 1968, Vien stepped in and ordered the military to back out of politics and allow the electoral process to work. But once again, outside of numerous newspaper articles and the rare mention of his name in long, detailed, complex works about the war, he has no biography.

Increasingly, whenever I write about history, I find myself taking the bare-bones story that someone has already written and fleshing it out immensely. A more egotistical person could say "I grew a tree from a tiny seed." But the fact is that the data was already out there. It just needed putting in order, according to the existing story that I found somewhere else.

And yet, I'm at a sort of existential loss here. Can history be written if it was already written before? Or is "history" just adding on to what already exists?

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