Author Records 300 Years of American Life: Lets People Tell Their Stories in Their Own Words

By Duin, Julia | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Author Records 300 Years of American Life: Lets People Tell Their Stories in Their Own Words


Duin, Julia, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Capturing a slice of American culture may be simple in this era of camcorders, but a British author has discovered ways to accurately reflect American thought in a much earlier era.

Noel Rae, editor of the Select Reader Book Club for 25 years, allows real-life people to tell their history in their own words in "Witnessing America," a 534-page book containing hundreds of excerpts from letters, diaries, tracts, pamphlets, ads, court records and various memoirs.

He includes anecdotes of what a 14-hour workday in the life of a turn-of-the-century farmer's life was really like; the true conditions aboard the African slave ships; and how "bundling," an 18th century mode of courtship used during cold New England winters, really worked.

These, plus a generous sprinkling of photos from the Library of Congress, provide an accurate picture of America over a three-century period from 1600 to 1900. The project took Mr. Rae, a resident of Cross River, N.Y., six years to complete.

"In all European countries, people have a much stronger sense of the past," says Mr. Rae, who was born in Britain. "Part of the roots of this country is leaving the past behind. People tend to turn their faces to the future. That's a great American characteristic."

Mr. Rae's book includes a vast cast of Indians, religious dissidents, African slaves, frontier teachers, Southern belles, Texas Rangers, Spanish conquistadors and fur trappers who appear in chapters with titles such as "Arriving," "Praying," "Playing," "Eating," "Ailing" and "Departing."

Although most of the authors are not known, a few quotes come from famous ones such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, who describes 40-foot-high snow banks in De Smet, S.D., in 1881, and Henry David Thoreau, who writes of a shipwreck on the Massachusetts coast in 1849 and how the survivors found their relatives' bodies on the beach.

"I hope to bring out how very hard life was at the time," Mr. Rae says. "The individual stories bring suffering and hardship home."

He begins the book with diaries of those who made the arduous trip to the New World, which show a side to immigration unknown today in an era of plane travel. Many never lived to see their destination; trans-Atlantic voyages usually took at least two months in the most wretched conditions and a woman past her fifth month of pregnancy was unlikely to survive.

"It is impossible to describe what happens during the voyage to women in childbirth and to their innocent offspring," a German traveler wrote in 1750. …

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