Puyallup, WA. During graduate school in 2007, my roommates and I watched the Band of Brothers series produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and based on the book by Stephen Ambrose. At the beginning of the episodes were interviews with the actual veterans of the European war. Watching these interviews, I was overwhelmed with the thought that there were members of the World War II generation in my hometown, Puyallup, Washington, who wouldn’t be with us much longer and whose stories I needed to hear.
So in December of 2007, home from grad school, I sat down for about four hours with Paul Harmes, a graduate of the Puyallup High School Class of 1939, veteran of the war in the South Pacific, and retired owner of a heating and fuel company in town. He confirmed my conviction that I needed to hear the stories of his generation. After that, I talked to as many people as I could find around Puyallup who were involved in that war.
I set appointments with veterans, relatives of men who were killed, and Japanese-Americans who were interned in the local fairgrounds. I sat at dining room tables and on front porches, exchanged letters with men who fought alongside sons of Puyallup who were lost in action, and placed cold calls in search of people whose names I found in wartime newspaper clippings.
The result was 120 interviews and a series of monthly articles in the local paper. Later, I turned this work into a book entitled Puyallup in World War II. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Among the many lessons of this search, I learned we must know the particular stories of America—we cannot know it merely in the abstract; we must find it out in the real places where we live and where people have lived before us, and where they will live after us.
The men and women of Puyallup’s World War II generation taught me something about my own education: that there are things I must learn about life, and the only way that I can learn them is through acts of service. Sitting in a classroom has its value, but we should never underestimate the lessons people learn when they commit to serving their communities.
I also learned something about the way that communities influence the affairs of nations. I heard about what Puyallup meant to soldiers, sailors, and airmen when they were far from home and in harm’s way. And I could grasp a bit about what it meant to them when they returned.
In this spirit, author and public intellectual August Heckscher, writing shortly after World War II, observed, “[I]t is noteworthy that the soldiers, when they plumbed the causes for which they were fighting, invariably spoke in terms of the smallest entity—the most local, partial, and often the most material interest. Our advertising agencies, who perhaps should not be taken too seriously in these matters, were fond of insisting that our men fought for a new car or washing machine. John Hersey, in Into the Valley, doubtless came nearer the truth when he elicited from the Marines on Guadalcanal the response that they were fighting for apple or blueberry pie. Pie can be taken as the symbol of home and family, of the simple daily round, the familiar sights and smells. In such primal loyalties patriotism has always had its roots.” We only need to add in mom and baseball to complete this colloquial symbolism of national things.
This accords with the famous insight in Edmund Burke’s Reflection on the Revolution in France: it is in small circles of human association that people attach themselves to their country and take interest in its welfare. This interest is conserved and promoted in the institutions of a community. As Burke wrote, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.” It is in these little platoons that we Americans become most familiar with our public inheritance and most determined to perpetuate it.
In my quest to understand the World War II experience of my hometown, I was learning about the relationship between the local and the national and also beginning to realize that our own generation would need to take part in this relationship in profound ways. Government alone could not have won the Second World War. Small businesses, voluntary associations, clubs and churches, and heroic individuals were a vital part of the war effort. As the December 26, 1941 editorial in the Puyallup Valley Tribune declared, “though we depend on our armed forces for protection, they also depend on civilians for the sinews of war. One is as necessary as the other.”
Through these history lessons, I was also falling more in love with the community in which I had grown up. I was discovering in the stories of my hometown what G.K. Chesterton – as quoted in Bill Kaufman’s Look Homeward, America – once called “that splendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism.”
Local attachments and local knowledge preserve meaning within a place from one generation to the next. Sociologist Robert Bellah described “communities of memory,” those small networks of human connection that allow us to belong, to have a sense of meaning, to feel a sense of place, to be aware of our relation to the past and our obligations to the future. Communities of memory exist because they have stories that are handed down through historic preservation and teaching, the arts, poetry, music, and oral tradition. Communities of memory are cultural inheritances—they cannot be created by an act of government. Nevertheless, the conservation of a community’s memory is a fundamentally political act because it establishes the context for politics. It gives people the sense of identity they need to act.
Love for a community in its truest form requires a love for the community as it is, as it was, and as it will be in the future. This is Burke’s idea of the social contract: “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Or as James Madison once wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit from them … There seems then to be a foundation in the nature of things, in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another. Equity requires it. Mutual good is promoted by it.”
Perhaps a community is not just a network that exists at a point in time. A community spans the generations. A politician, concerned about the present demands of winning elections and passing legislation, may consider the balance of relationships present within the existing play of interest groups and influencers. But a statesman considers policies in the light of relationships with very deep roots, relationships that will continue far beyond the present.
What Edmund Burke saw playing out in the social contract of a nation, connecting “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” 20th century urban thinker Lewis Mumford saw at work in the life of a city. “Cities…are the molds in which men’s lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them,” wrote Mumford. He added that “habits and values carry over beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time the character of any single generation. Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city.”
Wendell Berry has emphasized the ways in which membership constitutes the identity of people living together in a community across generations. Similarly, Bellah and colleagues wrote in Habits of the Heart, “We know ourselves as social selves, parents and children, members of a people, inheritors of history and a culture that we must nurture through memory and hope…. In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of community.”
A sense of place and a sense of heritage are incredible gifts that last a lifetime and beyond. It is important to know about the men and women who platted our streets and walked them before us, who built our neighborhoods and businesses, who taught in our schools and served in our governments, who shaped the institutions that make us proud to live where we do. Young people need heroes, but in an age of celebrities, we especially need local heroes. And we need to know the stories of the places, symbols, icons, and festivals that can make life in a local community interesting and inspiring. “Local history satisfies an innate human desire to be connected to a place,” writes Joseph A. Amato of Southwest State University in Minnesota and founder of the Society for Local and Regional History. “Local history today is one way of providing a mobile population … with a sense of place and an understanding of continuity,” wrote New York historian Carol Kammen.
For the past few decades at least, Americans and other Westerners have seen a growing interest in the history of their communities. In 1979, an English Committee to Review Local History noted a growing interest and output of local history “rooted in social and psychological needs brought on by rapid change in environment and life style.” On both sides of the Atlantic, the growing appetite for local history over the past couple generations illustrates a particular response to the pace of change and to the globalization of communications and information. “It is precisely the limited focus of local history that makes it such a powerful anodyne in a mass era characterized by gigantic proportions and crushing statistics,” writes Amato. We see the appetite for local history in the popularity of books like the Images of America series and other imprints published by South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing and History Press. We see the enduring presence of local historical societies, museums, and landmarks across time, and in big cities and small towns alike. I see the craving for history regularly on a Facebook page devoted to Puyallup’s history, filled with historic photos and memories that routinely get hundreds of likes, shares, and comments full of rich memories.
We can cultivate love for community by conserving and teaching local history. We need people who do this as a vocation in our schools, museums, and libraries. We need the help of artists, musicians, journalists, and other storytellers. We need people of all professions who are willing to support these activities as board members, donors, and volunteers.
Also, we need leaders who study local history and consider its implications for their work, learning from history’s successes and failures alike. This is why Pete Peterson of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy writes in the collection Why Place Matters:
[P]ublic officials must become historians. They should possess a keen historical knowledge of the communities in which they serve, and be able to communicate that unique history within the decisions they make and the plans they propose. In an era of tremendous change and movement, the important of knowing what is distinctive about the places in which we live has never been greater.
The responsibility to know and to transmit the history of our communities is closely tied to the responsibility we have as Americans to our country. To know a particular hometown, with its triumphs and tragedies, its gains and losses, its names and namesakes, its heroes and eccentrics, its myths and peculiarities, its landmarks and symbols, its deliberations and disputes, is to know a part of America and to deepen one’s commitment to it. To share this knowledge is to help others in their quest to understand themselves and how they might make their difference. Then, to serve—in a family, a congregation, a service club, a neighborhood group, a city council—knowing the background of an institution and the place where it is rooted, is to take one’s part in the unfolding of history.
Image Credit: Edward Hopper, “Coast Guard Station, Two Lights, Maine” (1927).