I read this one time that people who study history have this one moment wherein they suddenly realize that the words they’re reading aren’t just words, but the lives of actual people who actually lived once.
I have no idea if it’s true, but it’s an idea that’s stuck with me ever since.

Discussion (14)¬

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Okay, so I’m not an ACTUAL historian yet, but it has happened to me.
    I was watching the Discovery special about Pompeii and they mentioned that they found a bracelet with a woman’s name on it.
    Suddenly it just hit me, that was a REAL person. It certainly adds a spin on things when you study.

  2. Alley says:

    I’m not an actual historian yet either (like Elizabeth) but I completely agree. For me it happened during a women’s history course reading the biography of a midwife (I can’t remember what her name was now). But it is really surprising, same thing happened when reading first person accounts of the fire at Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

  3. dadman says:

    No historian here, either, but I work in a museum dedicated to the preservation of American history. Just two months ago during an installation, in the midst of the construction and cleaning and painting and logistics, I was working to get the face of a case clean and trim and square. I had other things to get to, but this thing just wasn’t going on easily; I had to keep removing it and adjusting it and trying it again.

    When it hit me that I while I was wrapped up in getting this right, I was working face-to-face with the coffee cup Abraham Lincoln set on his window sill before leaving for the theater on April 14th, 1865.

    So I get where Charlie’s coming from, and like Elizabeth noted: these are the things of real people, and their connections to real people have power beyond their physical existence. It’s nice to be reminded of that from time to time. More so, it’s important to be reminded of that from time to time.

  4. Anna says:

    I was an asst. curator for a state historical society (though I guess I was technically more a librarian than a historian). We were one of the places that gave source material to Ken Burns for his Civil War documentary. When I saw the finished series, that’s when it hit me. Even though I handled the stuff every day, fulfilling research requests – it was seeing and hearing it that brought it home.

  5. Birthe says:

    First comment here, so I just want to briefly say that this comic ist the one I enjoy most on my list of regularly read webcomics, and I loved the whole letter sequence so much!

    I am a historian, but I often wonder if I am a “real” one, because I always want to get in touch with the people behind the documents, feel them in some way, just as Charlie does on reading this letter. And that’s not what “real historians” seem to do. But I can’t help it. And I don’t want to, either. :-)
    But I actually never experienced such a moment of realization, because that’s why I started to study history in the first place.

  6. icegaze says:

    It’s not just people who study history, it’s other people too!

    I had an awesome history professor in college. He was explaining that the colonists who came over on the Mayflower (etc.) brought their women over with them, and the Spaniards didn’t. So the Spaniards were less insular, more eager to create pacts and contracts because the tribes had women. His speech was more articulate, of course, but I definitely had an “Oh.” moment. After all of the “Coach” history teachers in high school, it was the first time history was more than a bunch of dry facts I needed to memorize and spit back out.

  7. Alyssa H. says:

    I love the irony.

    Seems like Jeremy did know a thing or two. ^-^

  8. Eddie says:

    I believe it to be true, because I once watched the whole series of Ken Burns Civil War and sometimes when someone would voice over a letter,it made me think about what it would be like to be in that position.

  9. Essme says:

    I love this page. I am a history teacher, and I love your comic. This has happened to me several times when I am reading a book, or watching a movie anything that revolves around real events. It really is really is a wonderful feeling.

  10. Chris says:

    I minored in history, but am a software engineer by training. I have had this experience a couple of time: Once reading the book by E.B. Sledge “With the old breed” this was used not only in one of my classes but also by Ken Burns in his series on World War II. The other time was actually walking the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, for me it was little things like seeing lead pipes nearly 2000 years old and feeling how close the different streets were etc. For me it is a reminder of how transient this is and how important it is to enjoy each day.

  11. Dani says:

    I’ve always found that strange. I can’t imagine looking at a letter, a photo, a carving, or a building and NOT trying to put myself in the place of the person who wrote it, posed for it, carved it, or lived in it. That’s just always been my view of history– what’s the point of knowing names and dates without an understanding of the *people* who were involved?

  12. Hailey says:

    Well, I don’t really know.
    Perhaps needless to say, I love history. I’m kind of majoring in it, and I think it’s awesome. But at the same time, I think I definitely experience an emotional disconnect that some people don’t– I can read statistics about hundreds of thousands of people being slaughtered, and it really doesn’t connect for me that those are people, not numbers.

    I think what this moment represents for Charlie is less a sense of “this one letter is from this one real person, that’s pretty sad” and more “this one letter is from this one real person, but they ALL were real people, even the ones whose stories have been lost.” And I personally think that’s a more difficult distinction, though I’d love to hear if people disagree. :)

  13. Marcus says:

    I’ve had this many times in the course of my degree (archaeology), although two come instantly to mind. The first was when I read the Vindolanda Tablets for the first time, they are a series of letters [things like invitations to birthday parties and letters home asking for a warm pair of socks] from a Roman fort in the North of England which where persevered.

    The other one was in a seminar when they where teaching us to be able to tell the difference between a male and female skeleton, and how to find out how old they where when they died, after having covered the theory they brought out a skeleton of a man who had been dead for six hundred years and asked us to attempt to work out his age and gender.

  14. Sarah says:

    I grew up watching the movie/musical ’1776′, and I guess that (and an extremely active imagination) has always given me a sense of the people behind the history. My dad being an amateur historian probably didn’t hurt either, but we live in a small town with a lot of very visible history– when I was fourteen I started to work at the Kentucky Historical Society on a script for a 15-minute play taken from the diary of a girl who was sixteen at the start of the Civil War, which I performed off and on for four years or so. Museum Theater is a growing thing, as I understand, and the KHS has a really great theater director–check it out if you’re ever near there! but I felt like it brought the people to life–made them people who breathed and ate and slept and laughed and cried. I don’t think there was a ‘moment’ for me, or if there was I was too young to remember it, but I’m very glad I feel this way about it–it makes history classes/texts much more interesting.

    But yes, ultimately, history is all about the people for me–behind every larger-than-life figure, is a person who simply lived their life. That’s why I love it. And your comic!