How Lucy Maynard Salmon changed history

Past is the Past! But no, it is not past, In us, in us, it quickens, wants aspires, And in our hearts the unknown dead have cast The hunger and thirst of their desires. . . . We write THE END where fate has scarce begun And no man knows the things that he has done. Lawrence Binyon HAD Lucy Maynard Salmon written this poem with which she headed a chapter in her book ``Historical Materials,'' she would probably have changed the last line so that it read, ``And no human knows the things that he or she has done.'' Miss Salmon's interest in history was stimulated when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan in the early 1870s. President Grant was in office. Appalled by the stories of corruption that surrounded many of his appointees, she began looking into the ways other presidents had used this power of filling positions of public trust. On graduating, she had to put this interest on hold while she spent five years teaching at a country school.

When she was able to return to Ann Arbor for a year, she immersed herself in the history section of the library, taking ``the appointing power of the presidency'' as her thesis.

At the same time she helped to establish the American Historical Association, of which she was a charter member. She read an abridged version of her thesis at one of the meetings. It was so highly acclaimed that the decision was made to publish it in full.

In the wake of the Grant scandals, magazines and newspapers seized upon her book as the most thorough study of the subject ever made. There was amazement that it was done by a woman, someone who didn't even have the right to vote! It was proclaimed one of the strongest instruments in the struggle for civil service reform.

The success of the book opened doors. Lucy Salmon was offered an instructorship at Wellesley College, which she turned down in favor of a fellowship at Bryn Mawr. In 1887, she was invited to join the faculty at Vassar -- and though she was to become ``famous'' (a term she disliked) and to lecture at universities across the country, Vassar and the neighboring city of Poughkeepsie were to be home base for the rest of her life.

Vassar was not all she might have hoped for. She had an intense dislike for the hierarchical structure that separated instructors from professors as well as students. She waged a constant battle with the administration over the size and nature of her classes and what books should be purchased with the meager funds available. Her own interest was in obtaining source material where students might see things firsthand -- the administration wanted only recognized textbooks. After many battles she was able to build up an acceptable library by appealing to philanthropists and most everyone she knew.

Teaching for her was a process of continued learning, a joint adventure for instructor and instructed. She thought this might best be achieved with her senior students through a seminar but was denied permission to hold one. She circumvented this edict by inviting these students to her rooms two evenings a week. There they carried on discussions around a table that had to be expanded as the popularity of the class grew, until it came to be known as ``The Table Long.''

She traveled to Europe where she ``read'' history, not only in ancient ruins, but in the streets of the living cities. In 1898, a year in which she was sorely troubled about America's imperialist policies -- particularly in the Philippines -- she wrote a friend of the intense dislike she felt for London, calling it a ``smoky, sordid, grimey, canning town'' that reenforced her earlier belief that imperialism did not benefit the ordinary people of the imperialist nation.

On an earlier trip, she had taken up bicycling, a common sport in Europe. When she returned to Vassar and attempted to cycle in the divided skirts and high boots then worn, she was told it was too ``undignified'' for a member of the faculty.

I first ``met'' Miss Salmon in one of our major libraries, in the history section of the card catalog while looking for some work that would buttress my own feeling that history needed to be told with less emphasis on wars, dates, and scholarly footnotes. A card that caught my eye was titled simply, ``Why History Needs to be Rewritten.''

In this little book Miss Salmon said, in part, that it was the job of the historian to search out the truth and to write about it simply, and with style, in such a way that young people might feel they are really part of their country and ``what is happening in it,'' not merely ``onlookers of its public past.'' Much advice, still relevant, is to be found in this book on how to gather material and avoid losing important stories in a maze of unimportant details; on how to seek out the truth -- avoiding the temptations of accepting official records, or the biographies of those interested in making themselves look good.

Beyond Miss Salmon's interest in making the past come to life, she felt and acted as though she were continuing to make history: becoming knowledgeable and participating in the local and national events of her times.

In touch with many of the Vassar history graduates, aware of the choices she had had to make to pursue her own profession, she embarked on a study of women, not just professionals but also housewives and domestic workers. ``Progress in the Household'' and ``Domestic Service'' were two of the books that came from this study. One statement, especially meaningful in an age of credit abuse, urges women to ``abandon the attempt to maintain a Waldorf-Astoria style of living . . . abandon it even if you have the income to maintain it, if in maintaining it you are putting temptation in the place of a weaker friend or neighbor.''

Lucy Maynard Salmon took an active part in the life of Poughkeepsie. At her own expense she invited an authority on city planning to give a series of lectures and draw up plans for the improvement of the city. As a leader of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she stimulated that organization to work for ``better streets, parks, schools, playgrounds, school gardens'' and for the establishment of manual training schools.

For me Miss Salmon remains a vital, living person, one of a special group who have given much of their lives toward opening paths where we can move freely toward a future based on the dreams and wisdom of those who came before us.

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