Friday, April 09, 2010

A Tale that's Worth the Time

We came to the Phi Alpha Theta undergraduate research regional conference in Conyers, SC today. I gave my presentation on “Captain James Wimble: American Merchant, Founder, and Privateer.” We had comments afterward. One of the judges offered me some wonderful compliments on the research. I was flattered and thankful for that recognition. It’s relieving to get that after so much work. We students question what we do every day. A friend of mine told me that that’s what makes a good student… that you always believe you didn’t do well on a test but, it almost always works out that you did. You question everything you do. Still, this judge had a criticism. One comment he had was on the necessity of having a thesis to work from. I gave him some pat answer, like “Oh, I’ll remember that” or something like that. It occurred to me later in the hotel, in fact just a half hour ago, that I didn’t write it for that purpose. My story about James Wimble did not need a thesis to be important to me. And, I don’t think it needs one for any other reason, unless it needs to be pitched to someone. But, that’s not why I wrote it. In fact, I didn’t write it for a class. I wrote that piece because I was genuinely fond of Wimble’s story, that he had endured so much, and lost so much time, pride, and money to Spanish privateers and then took it back with heart-felt anger… no, not anger or vengeance, but something that I heard in a movie once. He demanded a “reckoning.” This was nearly biblical for Wimble. Evil (namely, the Spanish) lurked and threatened until it was smote by the Archangel Michael. For Wimble, there was never any failure in the Board of Trade to give him his due from all those Spanish privateers and hurricanes. It was somehow Spain’s fault.

You have to realize that I read letters, journal entries for the Board of Trade, wills and deeds. I dove head first into Wimble’s world and didn’t come up for air. I imagined a man that consistently blamed Spain for his troubles and never once felt that politicians were simply using the system against his claims for the money’s sake. James Wimble believed in a higher ideal… Wimble gave his life for that belief. There was something noble in that story, if a bit naïve. Still, there was this larger than life hero figure that looms above the normal tale and I simply believed it had to be told. The whole misconstrued, narrow focus on the historical Wilmington needed to be revised completely.

To tell the truth, I cared nothing for a thesis in this story and I don’t believe that anyone else should either. Unless you consider that this was the thesis… that James Wimble’s life was indeed common, but that how he responded to adversity was enormously instructive. His tenacity was extraordinary. I felt anger myself that this man has not been given the credit he was due simply because his story was English. But, I will argue that it was more than English, more than American… it was an uncommon human tale and North Carolina historians have been hogswaggled for decades over this wall around the historical realm of the state. This wall was impermeable to any of the outside effects from South Carolina, Virginia, and especially from the other side of the Atlantic. The story had to be North Carolinian or nothing and I couldn’t help but think that North Carolina fought as the underdog for so long that perhaps this affected our intellectual pursuit of history too. Wimble only got a single coastal hazard named after him, “Wimble Shoals.” It’s not even complimentary.

Revisionism has begun. Several recent historians have retold tales of this state as tales of a larger family, English, French, Spanish, Native American, and most certainly, African. When I speak like this, my impression of this revision is wearing round, colored sunglasses and singing “Imagine.” This is the way truth absolutely must be, not political or subjective in any way, but told for the benefit of all. REAL heroes are men who stand out from others, who seek their “reckoning” after enduring great injustice, men like James Wimble. I know he wasn’t perfect, but he certainly was better than most.

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