You Cannot Escape Death, But You Can Avoid Oblivion

Today I’m writing about two books that illustrate very different approaches to the personal past. One is a family history. The other is a personal reminiscence. People often confuse history with nostalgia, and history with reminiscence. These two books bring those distinctions into focus.

The first book is titled 140 Ivory by Travis Johnson (1941-2023) of Frewsburg. One hundred copies of the 340 page book were privately printed locally in 2021. Johnson was the man who originally painted the solar smiling face on the barn at the north edge of the hamlet as one comes down old route 62 into Frewsburg. The book is paper backed. It is printed apparently directly from a word processing computer file but illustrated by the author’s cartoon sketches.
The book is pure reminiscence. It is all anecdotes from memory. The author seems not to have even thought about consulting any kind of written records. He has specified only an occasional year, no exact dates, not even for his birth. He wasn’t trying to write an autobiography, much less a family history or any other kind of history. He was telling stories. That’s nostalgia. There is no table of contents although a separately prepared one is provided. But then the chapter titles mean nothing unless you have already read the book. There is no introduction, it just starts. There is no conclusion. It just ends. There is no index. There are no photos, not even black and white.

In contrast we have The Descendants of Richard Hoyle III: Over 300 Years in America, by Norman Pillsbury. It is 1,300 pages long and is a model of modern family history presentation. It is meticulously and laboriously researched and very well written. The graphics and spatial layout are arrestingly high quality. The paper, printing, and binding (hard bound) are top notch. It is an object of beauty and heirloom quality. It includes the date, place, and name charts that define genealogy, but it is a rich family history, a much broader category. Embedded within the individual biographies are numerous reminiscences spanning a large range of both substance and attitude in contrast to Johnson’s relentless smart aleck kid presentation.

Pillsbury shares author credit with his brother, Douglas, and his mother, Elizabeth Hoyle Pillsbury Warner (1916-2015). For many years she oversaw our Fenton History Center library and research service.

Johnson reportedly had intended to extend his reminiscences to a second volume but did not finish before his death. The Pillsbury book was the last from a collective family effort of many years’ duration. The Pillsbury book stands out in a small field of such laborious and costly productions. Productions as informal as the Johnson book are also rare. But a more serious intermediate level of reminiscence has become quite common in recent years. Fenton actively collects all local records or productions of stories, reminiscences, nostalgia, genealogy, or family history. We also sell them, given the opportunity, in the gift shop. But more often than not, the authors and families do not even think of us. We pick up their work at local tourist shops, yard sales, or even snatch them from the trash. Please consider what a treasure anything of this nature might be to some descendant, maybe yet unborn, in either the near or far future. When you are completely forgotten and have left no record, it is like a second death even more final than the first.

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