I don’t know just when it happens that it first strikes a person that History is not just a matter of the past, but of the living influences that surround us. For most of us, the present time begins roughly around the year of our birth, or perhaps even around the time of our earliest personal memories. and everything beforehand belongs to History, Thus, for example, on a visceral level it seems to me that the forty years after my high school graduation (1968 to 2008 ) seems to be much shorter than the forty years preceding it (1928 to 1968 ) . Subjective time is very flexible that way.
Here’s one that struck me even more forcefully, just the other day. A couple of months ago, my mother passed away at age 96. That’s not so unusual, and I find it convenient to think of the 20th century in terms of the life-spans of my parents (Dad was born in 1907 and passed away in 1989). But the 19th century still seems impossibly remote, populated entirely by Historical Figures. Until this thought came to me:
When I was born, in 1950, there could easily have been someone nearby who had by then attained an age as great as my mother did this past year (96). A 96 year old person that year would have been six years old, old enough to have retained memories of events, the year that Abraham Lincoln ran for President. That same year, a much younger contemporary, by comparison, would have had clear memories of the way life was before the Revolution.