Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past

Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past

Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past

Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past


What does it mean to be a human person? This volume is a historical inquiry into that foundational, deceptively simple question. Viewing the human person from various perspectives -- law, education, business, media, religion, medicine, community life, gender, art -- sixteen historians of American life explore how our understanding of personhood has changed over time and how that changing understanding has significantly affected our ideas about morality and human rights, our conversations about public policy, and our American culture as a whole.


Wilfred M. Mcclay

The question of the “human person” which flows through the essays in this book may sound formidably abstract and high-flown, the sort of speculation that good, solid, fact-oriented historians tend to avoid. Let me try to dispel that impression at the outset, then, with an example that I hope brings the question down to earth, where all fruitful inquiry ought to begin.

Consider the humble obituary column in your local newspaper. Not the obituary of a famous politician, soldier, or show-business celebrity. Just an obituary of an ordinary member of an ordinary community. Consider it first from the point of view of a surviving spouse or other family member or friend, the one who has to gather the information for the obituary and select out those facts that are appropriate for presentation in a public and permanent setting. Many of us have had this experience, and know how difficult and unsatisfying the process can be. the right balance between the competing demands of tenderness, respect, justice, loyalty, and candor is hard to find — particularly since we all tend to have genuinely different views of any person, and different ideas about what it means to memorialize that person properly. But still, there are important choices that must be made and emphases to be stressed, or avoided, in constructing the text.

And now let me bring the problem to a point. What photograph of the deceased should be used to accompany the text? Choosing the right words is easy by comparison. But rightly or wrongly, we grant enormous weight to the image in forming our enduring sense of the person. What image of that person, in what setting and at what age — at what moment in the trajectory of his or her life — should be provided? This is a newspaper, after all, so there is room for only one photograph, and no room for elaboration. So which will it be? Which period of life would be most representative of that man or woman in his or her fullness — a visual expression, so to speak, of a life’s totality or essence? Should . . .

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