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Friday, May 15, 2015

“Eyewitness to History”, edited by John Carey

750 pages, Harvard University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674287501

Eyewitness to History is a selection of over three hundred eyewitness accounts spanning twenty-four turbulent centuries of some of history’s most momentous events – and by momentous events, I mean executions, atrocities, gruesome accidents, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, assassinations, suicides, genocide, bombings, human sacrifices, war and, just for variety, slavery, embalming and outrageous funerals. One would think by this anthology that in the whole of human history nothing positive occurred…what’s that you say? You need some examples? Right-O: we get Plato’s eyewitness account of Socrates’ death (339 B.C.); the description of a Viking funeral, complete with gang rape and human sacrifice (992 A.D.); the execution of Louis the XVI (1793); the first-person account of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy (without anesthesia, 1811); the lives of prostitutes in London (1839); Walt Whitman’s record of Lincoln’s assassination (1865); Winston Churchill’s account of the battle of Omdurman (1898); the San Francisco earthquake and fire (described, no less, by Jack London, 1906); a description of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Vernichtungslager (1944); the Mỹ Lai Massacre (1968); and so on and so forth. Oh, there are some rather positive events, too, such as a dinner with Attila the Hun, Darwin’s discovery of his finches in the Galápagos Islands, a description of Dorothy Wordsworth and her daffodils, Henry Morton Stanley finding David Livingstone, and Paul Gauguin’s impromptu wedding to a Tonga girl, but for the most part, be prepared to be depressed after this litany of human woe.

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