I read with great interest this morning James G. Basker’s remembrance of investor and philanthropist Richard Gilder, who died on May 12 at the age of 87. Those with an interest in the study of the past might know that Mr. Gilder was one half of the partnership that founded The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The work they and their teams have done over these past several decades has been crucial to the dissemination and understanding of American history. One of their wisest moves has always been to focus on primary sources. Their emphasis has always been to let the people of the past speak to us in their own words via their speeches, letters, public broadsides, and recordings. At the institution where I myself work, we have applied for and won grants provided by the Gilder Lehrman Institute which have allowed us to discuss America and its role in the world and share it with the public. The ultimate investment is in people and knowledge.
Important though all that work was–and continues to be–Gilder accomplished more than that. He was instrumental to the renovation of Central Park in the hard years of the 1970s, and the revival of the New-York Historical Society among many other things. Getting older provides perspective. I have been a New Yorker long enough now to have lived through several eras and seen certain things change and change again, from the height of irrational exuberance to our current fraught moment. Has it been more than a decade and a half the Hamilton exhibit came to the Upper West Side? That was years before the Broadway play. The N-YHS slavery and Lincoln exhibits followed soon thereafter. I remember taking my late father-in-law to see the latter well over a decade ago. He and my father are now gone but they live on in the lessons I learned from both of them, combined with the places we visited and things we saw along the way.
Randall Hyden said:
Sad that there won’t be many hand written letters from our era…..So much of what we know of history is in letters.
Keith Muchowski said:
Good point. Much of our current moment will be lost forever because letter-writing is no longer part of the daily fabric of our lives. Many public officials used to keep diaries for posterity as well, getting their private thoughts on paper while knowing that they would they would be part of the public record years or decades later.