An Attention Span of More Than 5 Minutes

Erica Obey, president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, had some preparatory thoughts about our panel on New Jersey crime/mystery writers, taking advantage of having Mally Becker with us. Just last week, Becker published her first novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, set in the Revolutionary War period. Aside from Malley, we were Jeff Markowitz, me, and discussion leader RG Belsky, and Obey wondered how each of us connects with the past.

This was an interesting question. My public school education included very little history, none of it presented in an interesting or memorable way. It really wasn’t until I married Neil, who trained in history, that I learned what I was missing.

But history didn’t come to live in my heart until I started working on my family genealogy. In 2012, I extended my stay at Killer Nashville, and my cousin from Texas joined me for a two-day excursion to Wilson County, just east of the Music City. We wanted to see if we could learn anything about our great-great grandparents who’d lived there two hundred years ago. As it turned out, we learned a lot (patient people there, at the Wilson County historical society).

The artist Jeff Koons advises people to “take your history on board,” and I’m still working on it. One of the chief benefits of genealogy is recognizing more acutely how my ancestors’ lives were affected by where they lived and when they lived there. It gives me a specific, personal reason to become aware of the movements and events of the past. It isn’t all pretty.

When you start asking “why,” you come up with some powerful answers. Why did my family end up in Central Texas? Because the ruin and devastation of the Civil War was so great in Central Tennessee, my great-great grandparents and their eight children became part of the GTT (Gone To Texas movement). They had to start new lives with nothing but each other. Why were they so badly affected? Their homes and farms and animals were collateral damage in the Civil War Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro), just twelve miles south of them and involving more than 78,000 soldiers. (The abandoned cannon pictured is from the Stones River National Battlefield.) So, why were they in Tennessee in the first place? Because the men served in the Revolutionary War and were given settlement land in western North Carolina (now central Tennessee). Lots of drama and passionate feeling there for sure.

Among their Tennessee neighbors was the Huddleston family, ancestors of New Yorker and Atlantic writer George Packer, who says, “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.” I do know it’s affected my writing. Only two of my stories are overtly historical, but genealogy has taught me to think about more kinds of connections, past and present, as I write. It’s helpful grounding in this era of “nothing matters but the last five minutes” attention spans.

7 thoughts on “An Attention Span of More Than 5 Minutes

  1. Vicki, I really enjoyed your post. I have always had an interest in history, but now it comes alive when doing my family’s genealogy. My husband’s “Hill” line came from Tennessee/Western North Carolina before heading to Missouri in the 1820s. My husband has 1% Native American and it is said to be from this such line. One day, I will explore further, but I feel it will be difficult with such a common name as “Hill” Have put “Unworthy Republic” on my reading list now. Thanks for the suggestion. Cheers, Kristina

  2. Great blog, Vicki. I thought you might enjoy two comments by a college friend, who now lives in CO and has gotten deeply into her family’s genealogy. “I’ve stopped chasing 75-year-old single mean around Colorado and now chase 250-year-old men around southern Pennsylvania.”

    The other was her complete surprise when she discovered that one of those ancestors had “freed his slave.” (I think they were Mennonites.) “I couldn’t even imagine that I had ancestors who were slave owners!” she said. Did you have a similar revelation?

    • Since my ancestors lived in slave states, I was not surprised (if appalled) to know they owned slaves. But none of them was a wealthy plantation owner, so they didn’t have the hundreds you read about. Two or three only, but two or three too many, of course. I find the slaves’ names in my relatives’ wills, and a few of them were freed upon their owner’s passing. Not all, though. Additional upset comes from knowing about my ancestors who settled eastern Georgia, northeastern Alabama, and northeastern Mississippi in the 1820’s or thereabouts on lands that had been set aside for the Indian tribes in treaties with the US government. The influx of Europeans forced the Indians into smaller and smaller areas and culminated in the series of disasters known as the Trail of Tears. (Anyone interested should read Unworthy Republic, a National Book Award nominee last year.) So yes, when I wrote “it wasn’t all pretty,” this is exactly what I was thinking about.

  3. Hi Victoria,

    Interesting column. The winding trails of a family through history often fascinate me. For example, according to available information, the first Ryan in my line to arrive in America landed in Philadelphia as an indentured servant around 1865. An intriguing time to be in servitude.
    I’d like to offer a different take on this post’s ending that you may find interesting. While there is certainly evidence among my high school students that “nothing matters but the last five minutes” many others seem to have become “unstuck in time” and deep dive into binging entire runs of TV shows, whole music careers, historical eras, or modes of learning without care or concern where they fit chronologically. Students will be experts on television of the 80’s, Universal monster movies, or learning languages online, sometimes as a group but mostly solo. There are entire “rabbit hole” educations going on that have nothing to do with school of current events. Fascinating.

    And while some students seem to avoid current events at all costs, others are well-versed and can hold nuanced conversations on national politics and political movements. Sadly, some have been thoroughly indoctrinated along in one view or the other and seem shocked that alternate opinions can exist.

    Always an honor to communicate with you.


    • So interesting. I suspect my Tennessee ancestors weren’t too obsessed with the past, either. Just trying to stay alive in the present! (I do have a distant relative “killed by a panther.”)

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