A culture is defined by what it chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget. Ideally, a culture would remember everything, because knowing the past, as Santayana famously observed, was insurance against repeating its mistakes. But time is a huge eraser, as Shelley told us:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
This is why historians have such a crucial role to play in preserving our culture, by preserving stories, lives and memories along with the inspiration and wisdom they can provide.Sometimes a lost memory is rescued from neglect. Today we remember Colonel Joshua Chamberlain as one of the central heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg for his desperate stand with the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Little Round Top, culminating in his using his knowledge of military history (he was a college professor) to improvise the bayonet charge that held his position and turned defeat into victory. That was not the case for almost a century, however, until the historical novel “The Killer Angels” retold the story so vividly that Chamberlain’s entire career became the object of new scholarship and admiration. This was truth emerging, but it was also justice. Chamberlain deserved to be remembered.
Unfortunately, Chamberlain is an exception. Once a life, a deed, a remarkable moment is forgotten, it is usually gone. That is a tragedy for the culture. The duty to remember, which I have discussed here before, is the duty to protect the culture and its riches. It is also based on the Golden Rule. We all would like our lives to be remembered as long as possible, especially when we accomplished something that future generations could and would appreciate or benefit from recalling.
This brings us to Al Luplow.
Two nights ago, in an outrageously antic and entertaining game between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, Indians outfielder Austin Jackson robbed Hanley Ramirez of a home run by leaping in the air at the right centerfield bullpen fence reaching over it mid-air to catch the ball, and tumbling over it. He still held on to the ball—he could have easily broken his neck—and the home run became an out.
Although outfielders have fallen over that fence from time to time, notably in the 2013 play-offs…