Survivor meets Oral History
The last survivors. Last ones alive, who experienced… what, exactly? That’s the subject of a book by Stuart Lutz. Lutz interviewed 39 last survivors of many different experiences. The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors is the oral history of those 39 people, with each chapter combining background information with the first-person narratives of each Last Survivor’s oral history.
So who were some of these people who witnessed amazing people and events?
- The last living soldier of the great war
- The last suffragette
- The last pitcher from whose pitch Babe Ruth hit a home run
- The last man to fly with Amelia Earhart
- The last three Civil War windows (one Union, two Confederate)
- The last survivor of the Lusitania sinking
- The last surviving employee of Thomas Edison
- The last man to live in the White House in the 1920s
And wouldn’t you know it? Lutz got his interest in history from stories he heard from his own family.
Lutz, a Maplewood [NJ] resident in his 30s, has always been fascinated with the nearness of the past. As a boy, he listened rapt as his great-grandparents told stories of growing up in Russia and coming to America by steamship, and their amazement the first time they saw a plane.
His great-grandmother was 19 when she married in 1916, and voted for the first time in 1920, the very year women got the vote.
Growing up when planes and women voting were so ordinary as to not even be worth noticing, Lutz was excited by the living history in his own family. [Read More]
The afterward of his book has this gem “We all build libraries of our lives. When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. Every time one [last leaf] passes, our national memory dims slightly.”
There’s more about the process of putting together this book on the author’s blog at Amazon. He describes interviewing John Coolidge, son of Calvin (from the post “Thank you for the Advice John Coolidge”—alas no direct permalink) and the rediscovery of a quote bore out, in retrospect, a long path to this book getting published.
I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:
Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Dear Ms Kitchens,Thank you very much for taking the time to read and review The Last Leaf. I appreciate it greatly.
I haven’t read the book… yet. I saw mention of it from the news story on northjersey.com (I follow google news search for the term “oral history”). Now that I’ve learned more about the book, though, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it!