What reader of history hasn't fantasized about traveling back in time? Who wouldn't thrill to hear Washington calm the rebellion by his unpaid soldiers and save the revolution that he and they had won? Or stand with Meriwether Lewis on the Continental Divide? Or be privy to the conversations between President Kennedy and his brother Robert about our nation's course in Vietnam?Byron Hollinshead, a publisher and consultant to PBS, invited a score of writers to answer the question, What is the scene or incident in American history that you would like to have witnessed and why? Thus charged, our contributors rode madly off in all directions, in the words of humorist Stephen Leacock.
Mary Beth Norton wishes she could fill gaps in the historical record. If only she had been at the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, she might now understand the people's mental state during the crisis. Phillip Kunhardt calls on old newspapers to make a historical record about Jenny Lind's American debut in 1850 never mind that the publicity was orchestrated by the king of hype, P.T. Barnum. Bernard Weisberger wishes he could have heard Robert LaFollette's 1917 speech against America's entry into the Great War. But regardless, he knows enough to blame the United States for virtually all the rest of the warfare of the 20th century.
So here's the past, however you want to imagine it, invent it or condemn it from our righteous, morally superior time. I Wish I'd Been There is a book that will find its way into gift shops of historic houses and museums, stacked alongside picture postcards and replica china. What a treat for the historians on your shopping list! James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.