Lowbrow Historian

Stewart H. Holbrook
Lost Men of American History

In a short introduction, Allan Nevins says:

“There is always danger that the story of the nation, at least in its briefer versions, will become conventionalized...And [Holbrook] also touches on a deeper question. The United States is a great mass democracy, where equality of opportunity is emphasized;...have we not made a little too much of the very great men, the primary figures; and too little of the serried ranks of talent and achievement just behind them, the host of men whose labors were the main element in progress?” (viii)

In his own note to the reader, Holbrook says “I believe that men, even one man or one woman, often have had immense effect in slowing or hastening the forces that are said to make history...Many just such men and women have been slighted or wholly ignored in our history books. They are in large part the people I want to tell about.”

So it begins. The book is filled with interesting material. For example, “The log cabin’s first appearance in North America was in 1638, when members of the Swedish West India Company [who knew there was such a thing!] set up a trading post and village on the shore of Delaware Bay.” (4) This is not the Scandinavians’ only appearance. Holbrook later tells the story of novelist Fredrika Bremer, who went back home to tell the Swedes about Minnesota, and Reinert Reiersen, whose 1844 book
The Pathfinder for Norwegian Emigrants in the United North American States and Texas “was a classic of its genre.” (201-3) Holbrook covers a wide range of people and topics, including to my great surprise Abner Kneeland and Dr. Charles Knowlton (whose name gets by his copy editor as “Thomas” later in the book, 126-7, 312). Really interesting stuff, a lot of which could stand to be taken up by a guy like me -- some of which I’m already working on. But enough about that, for now!

Holbrook was an interesting guy -- may be a subject in his own right. His “lowbrow history” certainly anticipates my ideas of about the history of regular people,
for regular people. I’m happy I had the idea on my own, before I heard of Holbrook. I’m also happy he had it, because I’m looking forward to reading more and seeing where he took it.