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Saturday, April 3rd, 2004


Eyewitness to History

by John Carey

Dinner with Attila the Hun

A review by Doug Brown

Eyewitness to History passed under many people's radar when it came out, as it featured a cartoon cover which suggested it was another "history for people who don't want to learn very much about history" book. It actually is a fascinating anthology of writings throughout history, all written by observers contemporary to the events they record. From Thucydides' account of plague in Athens in 430 B.C. to the fall of Marcos in 1986, eyewitness accounts offer interesting perspectives often missing from later texts. The usual overarching interpretations layered on by subsequent historians are not to be found here: just sights, smells, sounds, and impressions. Pliny the Younger recalls reading Livy in a courtyard during the Vesuvius eruption of A.D. 79, as buildings tottered around him from the accompanying earthquakes. A Roman diplomat recounts a dinner in Attila the Hun's palace in 450; everyone else ate from fine silver plates and golden cups, but Attila unpretentiously ate a simple meal on a wooden plate, drinking from a wooden goblet. Marco Polo's vivid description of Kublai Khan's park is possibly embellished, but still demonstrates the universal truth that it is good to be the king. An Arabic envoy describes the rather brutal funeral rites for a Viking chieftain in 922. Jack London reports on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Some excerpts are whimsical, such as brief accounts of a kitten falling overboard in 1754, and an albatross being shot by sailors in 1719 — the latter supposedly gave Coleridge the kernel of the idea for Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

One of the most beautifully written stories is also one of the most horrific, an account from New York Times reporter William Laurence of the August 9, 1945, flight to Nagasaki and detonation of the atomic bomb. He gives a wonderful description of St. Elmo's fire playing over the plane as they traversed an ocean storm, and then as they circled off the coast of Japan he was allowed to sit up in the clear nose turret of the plane:

From that vantage point in space, 17,000 feet above the Pacific, one gets a view of hundreds of miles on all sides, horizontally and vertically. At that height the vast ocean below and the sky above seem to merge into one great sphere. I was on the inside of that firmament, riding above the giant mountains of white cumulus clouds, letting myself be suspended in infinite space. One hears the whirl of the motors behind one, but it soon becomes insignificant against the immensity all around and is before long swallowed by it. There comes a point where space also swallows time and one lives through eternal moments filled with an oppressive loneliness, as though all life had suddenly vanished from the earth and you are only one left, a lone survivor traveling endlessly through interplanetary space.

The black plague, Waterloo, Stanley and Livingston, the Titanic, kings, queens, mutinies, executions, early balloon flights, moon walks, atom bombs, it's all here. Of course, recent events are covered more thoroughly; there are only four accounts from the Civil War but over twenty from World War II. There are one or two cheats as well. For instance, Walt Whitman's later description of Abraham Lincoln's death is included because it is well written; Whitman was not in Washington on the day of the assassination. But all included stories were written within a few years of when they occurred, by people who were usually directly connected with those events. Each account is no longer than a few pages, making this an excellent commute or nightstand book.

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