(For more information on Dr. John Lienhard and Engines of our Ingenuity,
Jack Bacon, like many others, has traced his forebears back until the record runs out. But here Bacon builds the skein of context surrounding the begots of his own family, and something quite apart from genealogy emerges.
Bacon’s My Grandfathers' Clock is in fact a wonderful retelling of Anglo-American cultural history during the entire second millennium. He creates one day in the life of each of twenty-seven forebears. Then he steps forward in roughly thirty-five year increments, from AD 1066 up to the present, giving us twenty-eight snapshots.
What a delight it would have been to have this book in hand when I was still reading to my two children. It is not just that Bacon has put a human face on his forebears. Indeed, that would be quite impossible to do accurately beyond his grandfather’s generation. What he has done instead is use these people to put a human face on twenty-eight different stages of human history.
Following each chapter is a brief discussion of the larger historical context. A set of notes also explains, for anyone interested: “Why were different woods layered to make a longbow?” “What was the fate of futeball and golfe when they interfered with young men’s archery practice in the fifteenth century?” “What was the difference between the Massachusetts Bay Company and the London Company?” I could have read the stories, then filled in whatever details my children might have wanted.
You will find then, twenty-eight people, largely invented, in situations that are also largely made up out of Bacon’s fertile imagination. Each story is tied to some event in which he/she was known to have partaken, suspected to have partaken, or perhaps imagined to have partaken. Each vignette reveals one stitch in the fabric of our cultural evolution.
In this richly textured account, we learn how people conducted their daily lives; we experience much of the political turmoil they had to live with and which compromised their lives. Bacon is careful to salt his story with major events. We learn how the Magna Carta was affecting people one year later. We see the burning of Joan of Arc through the eyes of a complicit Englishman. We find one kinsman chafing at the British before the American Revolution. A northern cleric tries to cope with the Civil War as it just begins.
When Robert Bacon visits Roger Bacon, the famous monk shows him a pair of eyeglasses that he has manufactured. How does that square with the historical record? Well, Robert and Roger Bacon were in the same area at the same time. They could well have met. The first eyeglasses on record postdate Roger Bacon by at least a generation, but Roger Bacon wrote about the possibility of making such a device.
Consequently, it all has the ring of plausibility and it provides a superb vehicle for teaching young people the evolution of their own culture. It also suggests how we all wrestle with compromise and trouble.
History must be storytelling. If it is not, it becomes cost accounting or data acquisition. Those are important enough pursuits but not to be confused with history. For, if they are, then the forest vanishes and only individual trees remain. History should inform us as to who we are and how best to live in the present. That purpose can only be fulfilled when we see the past within its complex skeins of context.
Had Bacon meant to review the millennium in coolly objective terms, in a book of equal size, the result would inevitably have been a survey of trees. He has, instead, provided means by which we can watch our own evolution and change. I have now lived two such generations and, as I read, I realize that I have seen two such steps as Bacon describes during my own lifetime. In an odd way, his much larger story helps to have made the game worth the candle for me.
John H. Lienhard
University of Houston