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Oral Histories

Chronicles of the average person provide the most accurate accounts of everyday life.

by Vince Farinaccio

Ninety-eight years ago, a Vineland resident by the name of Charles E. Harrison celebrated his newly bestowed membership in the town’s Historical and Antiquarian Society by penning a letter to the organization’s secretary, Frank D Andrews.

Although he expresses his honor in joining the 60-year-old historical aggregate, Harrison’s preoccupation does not focus on the past or present but rather on what we might call the ‘future past’ which, the Moody Blues and X-Men aside, seems to denote the interdependence of what was and will be. As if keenly aware of each tick of the clock, Harrison pleads for the preservation of Vineland’s past in order to preserve its future.

Harrison appears most concerned with allowing the information of Vineland’s gestation and early growth to reach the future that will be shaped by it. But he also seems somewhat wary of how that future may, through omission, control the narrative of the past. Thus, the preservation of one is necessary in safeguarding the other.

“Each year,” he writes, “there remains a diminishing number of persons who met, face to face, the original and early settlers of Vineland; who can tell, with anecdote and description, what were the individual peculiarities of those whose names are preserved; who can describe, as actual participants, the social gatherings and business consultations and political controversies of those days and set forth for us the actual beginnings of the developments which now are a pride and satisfaction to all.”

Decades before the paradigm shift in historical studies veered away from industrial and political royalty toward the chronicles of the average person, Harrison wonders if the latter approach might provide a better, more accurate account of everyday life, noting that “biographies which are preserved are those of persons who have made some stir in the world, and usually of those who reaped rewards” before asserting that “every community is built also by the toil and patience, even the privation, of many worthy ones in humble station.”

Harrison observes that the “short and simple annals” provided by these individuals “is great help in forming a true picture of the past.” He encourages residents to write what they recollect, remarking, “how delightful are the words of the survivors when they open to us the storehouse of their memory.”

Although commonplace today, oral histories were not prevalent a century ago, yet Harrison discusses, somewhat poetically, how such historical records can be attained: “Literary labor calls for exertion from which old age shrinks. But younger hands may write down what older lips can tell. Let it be written, while yet the lips can speak!”

While the preservation of Vineland’s past is foremost in his missive, Harrison does not overlook the fact that the era during which he is writing is a ‘future past,’ that “we ourselves are now making history” and “in another century, the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society…will do us the distinguished honor of bringing to light and investigating and commemorating the deeds and personages of 1925.”

In 1856, poet Walt Whitman evoked in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” a similar layering of time within “future past,” reaching out to generations not yet born, convinced there would be a commonality of human experience and, with it, a subtle hint of immortality. “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence…just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…”

For Harrison, those layers of time coalesce not in Brooklyn but in an historical society which, by “linking the past with the present Vineland, now binds me to both, and will add greatly to the pleasure and interest of the future.”

Jersey Reflections