While in graduate school I became intrigued with the popular novels written by American women in the early nineteenth century, not only for the historical insights they provided but also for their literary charm. These novelists, once dismissed by literary scholars as “sentimental,” have in more recent years won academic appreciation for their intelligence and talent. While you will not uncover any forgotten Jane Austens or Charlotte Brontes in perusing their works, you may find that their gentle romances infiltrate your imagination. The writers had the wisdom that comes from quiet reflection and humane ideals, and as you turn the pages slowly you will sometimes come across a soft-glowing gem.
One of my favorites is The Hidden Path (1854), the second novel of Virginia writer Mary Virginia Terhune, who published under the pen-name of Marion Harland. As its title suggests, the novel explores the virtue of humility and the moral drama of ordinary life. In chapter 4, four young friends discuss the secret heroism of unpretentious folk. One of the four, Frank, suggests that if the histories of individual human hearts could be written, such “soul-pictures” would make the momentous events of the history books seem dull by comparison. His companion Maurice agrees. “They [historical events] are, in reality, of trifling moment when compared with the revolutions of the microcosm each one of us carries in his bosom.”
“‘Yes,’ mused Frank. ‘The inner life of every human being is a poem, a romance – how often a tragedy. I have long since ceased to call any man or woman uninteresting. As in the natural world the most important operations are effected silently, so the history of the most commonplace person you know may be crowded with events of thrilling interest.’”
Frank then recalls an apparently dull-witted and unattractive schoolmate who had been, at the time, only a casual acquaintance. The boy had been the butt of ridicule at school and a scapegoat at home. Frank later learned that his classmate had risked his life to protect his sister from an abusive father, and then devoted himself to caring for his now-disabled sister and fragile mother, taking on responsibilities from which most others would shrink. He had gone on to become a doctor.
Frank’s friends agree warmly that his old classmate is “more than noble” and “a true life-warrior.” They reflect, however, that the very fortitude with which such souls suffer in silence is an obstacle to the chronicling of any such “heart-histories.” Moreover, they observe, even if written the histories would likely be “stigmatized as the most improbable and pernicious romance.”
As an historian, I have often reflected on the extent to which our recorded histories, for all their drama, must be impoverished by our inability to see with any clarity beneath the surface of events. (And even the surface is pockmarked with gaps.) I have wondered, too, about the ways that mundane actors have shaped momentous events. True, modern social and cultural history have done much to enrich the tapestry of history and to broaden its scope. It is interesting that Terhune, who liked history and tried her hand at biography, foresaw the possibilities of modern “microhistory,” a detailed study of a particular individual, event or community with a view to shedding greater light on the wider history. This is the closest historians can come to chronicling Maurice’s microcosmic revolutions. Even so, however rich the archives and meticulous the scholar, much more history is hidden than recorded.
I am looking forward to a time when those myriad secret histories will be revealed. My motivation, I hope, is not a species of intellectual voyeurism but a desire for poetic justice. Let the life-warriors receive their medals of honor, and epic poems celebrate the heroic deeds of dimwit schoolboys and homely schoolgirls. All the hurt and shame will have sloughed off. The panorama will be stunning, and the relating of the sparkling new heart-histories will take a happy eternity.