Truth Or Consequence
SohoNYC Magazine|Issue 60

History In The Digital Age.

Suzanne Clary

I remember the first time someone introduced me publicly as a historian. I had never self-identified as one. I have an undergraduate degree in Art History and, as many regular readers already know (yay all of you!), restoring the bricks and more importantly the narrative of John Jay’s home in Rye, New York has been my passion for nearly a decade. When my children were each filling in the Common App for college, the field for “Father’s Occupation” was a snap but “Mother’s Occupation” was a stumper. None of the 45 generic drop-down categories quite captured “full-time volunteer preservationist, nonprofit historic site director, researcher and writer.” In the end, they assured me it was not a reflection of my deficit of pie-baking skills or nest-building capacity that made them immediately reject “Homemaker;” nor the fact that our dining room table is completely unusable, laden as it is with antique maps, diaries and indentures. True to their upbringing to challenge limitations or perhaps just expand definitions, my son and daughter affirmatively checked the box “Other.”

But back to my apotheosis. It took place at a stately, black tie dinner in 2011 hosted by the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) at which a real historian, Ron Chernow, was being honored. During the cocktail hour, we all inhaled rarified tidbits of 18th and 19th century-centric conversation more rapidly than mini-crab cakes. Hundreds of people were packed into a votive-lit, marble hall that glittered with intellectual capital. We were there to show our support of the organization’s mission to be “a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.” Serendipity and thirst from talking too much, and perhaps a bit of nerves, eventually led me to the bar where I met another real, credentialed historian, journalist, and presidential speech writer, Ted Widmer.

At that time, Widmer was the Director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He stood out without embarrassment or apology among the tuxedos in a natty tweed blazer and tie. But I recognized him for curating a brilliant and addictive Civil War blog that examined one of our country’s deepest, unhealed wounds. Created to commemorate the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest homeland conflict, Disunion was a provocative digital journal that allowed readers like myself to view the war through a 21st century stereoscope, day by day, as it unfolded. The site deservedly racked up impressive awards for its accessibility and innovative commentary including “Best History Website.” In addition to Widmer, this daily forum launched by The New York Times included a host of collaborative voices, acclaimed male and female authors, essayists and scholars like Adam Good heart, Louis P. Masur, Harold Holzer, Susan Schulten, Elizabeth Varon and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to name but a few.

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