The Enduring Significance of a Primary Source

Nothing prioritizes one’s valued possessions quite like having to move. Faced with packing (and unpacking) dozens of boxes, one may decide that stuff carried around from year to year be jettisoned. Historians run the risk of keeping tons of old papers, be they old conference papers, notes from readings, or copies of primary sources. Since establishing I will move away from the Midwest, the quest to consolidate led thousands of pieces of paper into the recycle bin. But as I sorted papers to pack, discard, or shred this week, I came across a nineteen-page document for the “pack” pile.

Twenty years ago, before I made the move back east to study at the University of Chicago, my grandfather Maury visited California for his 83rd birthday.  We arranged for me to join him back to his home in Hilo, Hawaii to interview him about growing up the son of immigrant Jews in Black Hawk County, Iowa.

Maury would not simply sit still for an interview.  He was, by trade, a writer, starting out at Iowa newspapers before heading to Los Angeles to work in radio, write the story for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, pen some Perry Mason episodes, and write some other films and plays, including Marilyn Monroe’s dramatic radio debut.  (A moment less historic than her dance over a steam vent.  No surprise, as radio was hardly her best medium.)   His desire to control the narrative meant that before we flew to Hawaii, he sat down at his typewriter and bashed out a series of memories and family stories he titled “THE GREENHORNS.”

“THE GREENHORNS” (capitals original) focused on my grandfather’s experiences growing up as one of the few Jewish kids in town, but also included the story of how my great-great-grandfather Ben selected the family name, why my great-grandparents Abraham and Pearl fled Europe, and how my great-grandfather wound up in rural Iowa buying junk from area farmers.  “THE GREENHORNS” served to structure more than ten hours of discussions he and I taped over a week.

Little did I know in 1992 how much this little document would shape my life.  Over the next year, “THE GREENHORNS” and resulting interviews inspired my M.A. thesis on Chicago’s importance to Jewish life in the Midwest.  (A thesis that owed no small debt to William Cronon’s discussion of Chicago and its hinterlands in Nature’s Metropolis.)  But it was not until I moved to Carnegie Mellon University to study urban environmental history with Joel Tarr that it had its greatest influence.

Joel and I, it turned out, had family stories in common.  Though his family settled in New Jersey and mine was in Iowa, both his father and my great-grandfather worked buying and selling scrap metal.  Both were Jewish, as, anecdotally, were most of the men (usually men) who entered that trade in the early twentieth century.  Wondering why that was the case helped inspire my study of scrap recycling practices throughout American history, first as a dissertation, and then as the book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America.  While my interest in waste derives from several influences, I see a clear line from “THE GREENHORNS” to my current work.

Cash for Your Trash has the most obvious debt, and my grandfather influenced the timing of that book.  One reason why I wanted to interview Maury in 1992 was an observation that he was slowing down in his early eighties and I wanted to commemorate his stories while he could still tell them.  His memory was a little slow and halting at times, but was still a strong and able storyteller.  Two years later, he would fall and sustain brain damage that rendered followup interviews impossible.

Even then, he remained a strong-willed and remarkably self-sufficient man. A decade after the accident, however, his body began to give out.  My manuscript neared completion in late 2004, and I rushed to finish it so the slow process of turning galleys to a published book could begin. The book came out the following autumn, and my grandfather managed to hold on. Maury died at the age of 96, three days after my father placed a copy of Cash for Your Trash in his hospice room.  The book is dedicated to him, in no small part because of the stories he shared in “THE GREENHORNS.”  I look forward to unpacking this document when I arrive – not far from the Ellis Island immigrant inspection station where my great-grandfather entered the United States – in New York City.

1 thought on “The Enduring Significance of a Primary Source

  1. Judith Johonnot Fowler

    I am inspired by this entry and the document. I have recently been seeking the connection between my Huguenot ancestors and my own destiny! I cherish the notion that there is a purpose in my life related to theirs and you gave me hope to keep seeking!
    as to scrapping and wealth I am close to someone who works with metal and photography and I wonder if he isn’t seeking a connection also which ties in with sustainability, while other opportunities to link to his not so distant ancestral connections (such as going into the field of engineering) have been passed by. maybe everyone is on this track and maybe that is why “story” itself haunts us.


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