Mr. Everyman Buys Coal

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, September 2009

At the AHA annual meeting in 1931, Carl Becker got a standing ovation for his presidential address, “Everyman His Own Historian.” It remains the most quoted speech in the AHA archive, and it is well worth reading today.1 But it is also a period piece marking the distance between Becker’s world and our own.

It begins with a seemingly simple argument: “the essence of history is the memory of things said and done,” and since the memory of things said and done is “essential to the performance of the simplest acts of daily life,” history is not some esoteric science. It is an extension of social memory. To illustrate his argument, Becker told a story about a character he called Mr. Everyman.

Mr. Everyman is a dutiful, if somewhat colorless, figure who works in an office, enjoys playing golf, and on a certain day wakes up with a nagging sense that there is something he has forgotten. So, says Becker, he “does what any historian would do; he does a bit of historical research in the sources.” In his vest pocket he finds a note reminding him to pay a man named Smith for 20 tons of coal delivered a few months before. Even though he hadn’t actually seen the coal delivered, the note in his pocket produces a picture in his mind of Smith’s wagons “driving up to his house and of the precious coal sliding dustily through the cellar window.” Armed with this knowledge of the past, he leaves work at four o’clock that afternoon and walks to Smith’s office to pay for the coal.

But when he gets to Smith’s office, he discovers that his morning’s research was faulty. On the day he ordered the coal, Smith didn’t have the kind that he wanted so passed the job onto Brown. He hastens to Brown’s office. Seeing the evidence in Brown’s ledger, he writes out a check for $1017.20. After returning from the Country Club that evening, he digs more deeply into his own records and finds the original invoice from Brown. Secure in his knowledge of the past, he goes to bed with a picture in his mind of Brown’s wagons pulling up to his cellar window.

“Mr. Everyman would be astonished to learn that he is an historian,” Becker said, “yet it is obvious, isn’t it, that he has performed all the essential operations involved in historical research.” He consulted memory, and when memory failed, he turned to written records, and when the records proved contradictory, he persisted until he arrived at what was, in his view, a more correct picture of the past, a picture that allowed him to act in the present.

That Mr. Everyman stored coal in his cellar and paid bills in person marks part of the distance between Becker’s world and our own. But on closer examination there is something even stranger about Becker’s story. My engineer husband reinforced my sense that 20 tons was an awful lot of coal, the equivalent today of 3,600 gallons of heating oil, enough to heat a four-bedroom house in New England four times over. Pouring through Mr. Everyman’s cellar window, it would have filled a space roughly 10’ by 10’ by 10.’ Mr. Everyman either had a very large house or a very inefficient furnace. That he could write out a check for $1,017.20 (near the median yearly salary in 1931), suggests that he was anything but an everyman.

So what was Becker up to? If his main character had been the coal deliveryman, the furnace repairman, or the woman next door, would he still have been able to argue that in the course of daily life such a person “performed all the essential operations involved in historical research”? In fact, there is a rift right down the middle of the essay between the story of Mr. Everyman and Becker’s expansive assertions about history. One astonishing paragraph begins by turning Mr. Everyman into Mr. Everybody. By the end, Becker has pulled off his stiff collar and picked up a drum.

We are Mr. Everybody’s historian as well as our own, since our histories serve the double purpose, which written histories have always served, of keeping alive the recollection of memorable men and events. We are thus of that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths.

Which drum is Becker beating? Is history really an extension of social memory, or is it something more systematic, like the methodical pursuit of a man determined to pay a bill?

There is so much to like in Becker’s essay—the wit, the iconoclasm, the pithy one-liners. But it is nevertheless filled with contradictions, as any essay that attempts to summarize the essence of history must surely be. That is especially so when we try to play out its implications for our own time. Some writers see a straight line from Becker to identity-based history, as in Every Group Its Own Historian. Others praise his openness to lay participation. As Roy Rosenzweig once observed, “The web takes Carl Becker’s vision of ‘everyman a historian’ one step further—every person has become an archivist or a publisher of historical documents.”2

Among other things, he has been described as a relativist (“The form and significance of remembered events, like the extension and velocity of physical objects, will vary with the time and place of the observer”), as a populist (“Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities”), and as a post-modernist (“the form and substance of historical facts, having a negotiable existence only in literary discourse, vary with the words employed to convey them”).

He is best known, however, for his assault on the notion that historians are primarily gatherers of facts. “Left to themselves, the facts do not speak; left to themselves they do not exist, not really, since for all practical purposes there is no fact until some one affirms it,” he wrote. In an equally famous passage, he insisted that since historical facts “are not material substances,” to write history “is not comparable to dumping a barrow of bricks.”

Or coal? On closer examination, the strangest thing about Becker’s essay is not his portrayal of a wealthy, golf-playing, homeowner as Everyman. It is that $1,017.20 that Mr. Everyman supposedly paid for his coal. Not only did this invented character buy more coal than even a well-to-do householder could reasonably use. He paid $50 per ton in a year when the going price was $13 including delivery.

Unless we want to assume that neither Becker nor his audience knew the price of coal, we have to conclude that his exaggerations were deliberate. From beginning to end, the story of Mr. Everyman was a spoof. To situate Mr. Everyman in a country club was outrageous, and his audience knew it. That it took me a couple of weeks to get the joke is further evidence of Becker’s point that “every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience.” It is easy enough to figure out the price of coal, hard to capture the contexts that give events their meaning.

—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard Univ.) is the president of the AHA.

Notes

1. Becker delivered his address on December 29, 1931 in Minneapolis. It can be found in the American Historical Review, 37:2 (January 1932), 221–236 and on-line at www.historians.org/info/AHA_History/clbecker.htm.

2. Roy Rosenzweig, “The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,” Journal of American History, 88:2 (September 2001), 548–579.