By Nick Noble ’76, Communications Manager & Editor, School Historian
Achieving the History of St. Mark’s—An Author’s Journey
“Just how do you write a book about history?” I have heard that question more times than I can count, along with its not so subtle companion: “Why?” Students past and present, who have struggled or who are struggling with research papers in school are usually the ones asking, finding it hard to believe that someone could see such a lengthy project through to the end. Then there are the casual online users who feel that google and Wikipedia are all they need, or those who feel that the past is behind us, over and done, and that studying yesterday is a waste of time when we should be looking forward to tomorrow. And sometimes folks are simply curious. In any event, the answers to these inquiries are both subtly complex and deceptively simple.
First the “how.” I have now written seven books, on topics as diverse as college baseball, 19th century biography, and folk music. But my principal focus has been on institutional history. Two books about Brantwood Camp (Brantwood and To Honor the Trust) and another detailing the history of the Town of Southborough (Fences of Stone) preceded my latest effort—The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School. Do you sense a connection?
It was in the spring of 2007 that John Warren first asked me to take on the St. Mark’s project. So officially, I have been working on it for eight years. But in fact I began researching the history of the school when I was sixteen years old, in the December of my Fifth Form year. Back then, we had something called December Week—five days leading up to the winter break, where regular classes were suspended and each St. Marker took a single, specialized course, all day, every day: not that dissimilar from the new St. Mark’s Saturdays and the upcoming Lion Term. My activity that December was “Updating the History of St. Mark’s School,” and I got to read through stacks of St. Markers and interview teachers and alumni. The final report was pretty lame, at least when viewed in retrospect, but it was chock-full of interesting nuggets of information that would one day prove quite valuable. That year I also became the “student archivist”—the School archives were then located in the basement of the library—and during my Sixth Form year my Independent Study Project was a “History of St. Mark’s Athletics,” which ultimately filled three spiral notebooks and found its way into the files of the Athletic Department.
When you combine that with the above my work researching and writing the histories of Brantwood and Southborough, I had been preparing for the role of St. Mark’s historian for the better part of four decades. But what did that mean?
Contrary to popular belief, writing history is not simply arranging facts in some kind of order and then putting them into sentences and paragraphs. Not all information carries the same weight, and what claim to be historical “facts” are more often than not at odds with each other—just as when several witnesses to the same crime each give very different accounts of the episode. First, it is important to immerse oneself in all the available data. I spent months in the archives (now in the basement of Thieriot) reading and taking extensive notes. There were trustee minutes and treasurer’s account books going back to 1865. There were volumes of correspondence from headmasters—particularly Dr. William Greenough Thayer—and files covering almost every topic imaginable related to the running of a school. There were student scrapbooks and stories, and copies of the Vindex (going back to 1877), the Lion (which first appeared in 1918), and the St. Marker (starting in 1947). There were books—by alumni, about alumni, and about secondary schools in general—as well as the first two histories of the School, by Benson (published in 1925) and Hall (1966). There were also interviews—more than a hundred of them—conducted over many years. Some were straightforward and formal, others were simple conversations, and yet even others emerged from a variety of correspondence, including letters and emails
There were some exciting discoveries along the way, sometimes completely by accident. Two, in particular, come to mind. While online, looking for background information on a longtime faculty member (Frederic Appleton Flichtner, who taught and coached at SM from 1895-1930), I came across the diary of his sister, Anna Appleton Flichtner, who, as a young girl, spent the Prize Day week at St. Mark’s in 1907. Her diary gave me a unique female perspective on the otherwise all-male School environment of that era. Likewise, while doing online research into the death of music teacher Hale Very (the only faculty member killed in WW II), I discovered a site devoted to sharing his letters home (letters I didn’t even know existed) and interpreting them with music.
Other discoveries included photographs unseen for decades. I found a hitherto unidentified photo of SM Founder Joseph Burnett from 1882, a photograph of the very first team of St. Markers to compete against outside athletic completion (four oarsmen in 1870), and some striking visuals of alumni in wartime. Finally, thanks to Mr. Lyons in the history department, the program from the very first SM theatrical production (Julius Caesar, 1871) was unearthed.
Some revelations were fascinating. The years immediately following the First World War were eerily similar to the admittedly challenging period of the 1970s. And the behind-the-scenes insights into Mr. Brewster’s headmastership (1943-1948), the School’s efforts to integrate (1946-1965), and the story of the Southborough School (1971-1977) really opened my eyes.
There were, then, controversial subjects to explore, beginning with the uncomfortably brief tenure of the School’s very first headmaster, the reaction to headmaster Robert Traill Spence Lowell’s 1872 novel of school life Antony Brade, and the power struggle involving William E. Peck (headmaster from 1882-1894), all the way through to the challenges of 20th century wartime, student unrest, integration, and coeducation. Given the cause-and-effect relationships between many of these, I decided to write the book chronologically, rather than thematically.
My predecessors in St. Mark’s history—Messrs, Benson, and Hall—had attempted both approaches. Benson alternated between a chronological narrative and chapters of thematic reminiscences. Hall began and ended his work chronologically, but preferred a generally thematic approach within that framework. I decided, however, to follow the advice given in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:
Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, `and go on till you come to the end: then stop.
There is also, in attempt to bring people and events from the distant past to life, a storytelling approach to much of the book. If you want to accuse me of “novelizing” history’s narrative in places, I refer you to the preface of John Updike’s wonderful historical play Buchannan Dying, as well as to R. G. Collingwood’s invaluable epic The Idea of History, and especially to Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Essay on History, in which he argues that “a perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque.” Updike, Collingwood, Macaulay—blame them.
The Echo of Their Voices is, in fact, a work of history, and so there is a thorough bibliography and numerous footnotes. Fear not, however. As many of the sources are cited in the narrative (“According to the May, 1951 issue of the St. Marker…”), most of the footnotes are actually supplementary to the main text and not just citations. My late father, in proofing the manuscript, said that he found many of the footnotes more interesting and entertaining than the main narrative itself. Hmmmm.
And don’t think that once the research and writing are done that the work is finished. No, no, no, no, no. There’s the proofreading. There were several proofreaders, but particularly Mary Rich at the Communications Office. Hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months of proofreading. And there are still, I am sure, mistakes (I have been reading through the published edition, but the only errors I have found are tiny ones in the footnotes). I look at a book like a quilt, however. In the Amish tradition, since only God can be perfect, every quilt must have an imperfection, often called a “humility block.” Any errors found while reading the new SM history are mine alone, and I am indeed humbled by them, but they are an essential part of creating a perfectly imperfect work.
And then came the printing/publishing process. I worked closely with the staff at Puritan Capital Printing in Hollis, NH. It was a collaborative effort, every step along the way. It was a wonderful experience, except for the last week or so before it appeared. I visited the printer right before the book went to press and then on to the bindery. At that point, it was out of my hands. I felt like mission control during the last few minutes of a manned space flight returning to earth. As the spacecraft hits the atmosphere, it is enveloped in flame and it disappears from all tracking screens. There is nothing the crew on the ground can do, no way of knowing if the astronauts will make it safely to earth, for five or six minutes. Then it reappears, and there is a collective exhale of relief. I was holding my breath, waiting for the first copies of my book to arrive, knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do… and then they arrived, and I could breathe again.
So the answer to the “How?” of a history book is complicated indeed: an eye-opening odyssey of effort and reward. As to the “Why?” – That’s simple: because I love it. Not that I’d dive into another book right away. One of my colleagues suggested that I had earned a paternity leave after overseeing the conception and birth of such an epic, but with the 150th fast approaching, there is no rest for the wicked.
Winston Churchill once said that, “Writing a long and substantial book is like having a friend and companion at your side, to whom you can always turn for comfort and amusement, and whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind.”
Well, now that this long and substantial book is done, I will truly will miss my friend and companion of the past several years, not without relief but certainly with a measure of regret as well. I’m trying to keep the relationship alive by finally reading through it as a book, and not as a working assignment. But I know I need to let go and let it fly. So I now hand this friendship over to the rest of the St. Mark’s community, in hopes that they will find within its pages interesting insights regarding the evolution of our shared institution over its first century and a half.
Nick Noble is the Communications Manager & Editor and School Historian. He currently oversees the news content of the School website and serves as Editor of the twice-yearly St. Mark’s Magazine. In his spare time, he is host of THE FOLK REVIVAL on WICN (Worcester Public Radio). While at St. Mark’s, Nick was President of the Choir, Glee Club, and Dramatics Club, and was Manager of Varsity football, wrestling, and baseball.