Questioning our past to understand today

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The word “nostalgia” comes from the combination of ancient Greek words for “pain” and “coming home.” Literally, the word described the ache that came from longing for a home that will never be the same.

Nostalgia is the pain of leaving home. And it could be considered as powerful as a drug.

When you peruse local history articles on the internet or social media you typically wade through a sea of nostalgia. People remember places from old pictures, stories about their past or their parents, all of which are gone now. They argue about minutia, small details of chronology that matter only as a means of emphasizing the depth of this pain.

In fact, some people live in this fog of nostalgia, so comforting it becomes. The present becomes a sort of crude interloper, an unpleasant reminder that the fog isn’t real; it is only a reconstruction in our mind.

But history is so much more than nostalgia. It is something alive, a science not so different than genetics or architecture. Its results live on and we create new history every day, whether we know it or not.

Two new books by groundbreaking historians Robert Caro and Hy Berman offer a glimpse into this more revelatory vision of the past.

In “Working: Reading, Interviewing, Writing,” (Knopf, 2019) Caro details his research and writing methodology through a series of interviews and essays from recent years. It’s a must-read for anyone writing about the past. Caro’s work might seem dense. He’s dedicated his life to writing about notions of political power — what it is, where it comes from, and what it does to people.

Caro’s “The Power Broker” remains a prescient exploration of those themes. The book investigates Robert Moses, the man who built modern New York at the expense of the poorer, weaker members of society. The 1974 book, which weighs several pounds even in paperback, won Caro the Pulitzer Prize. His unfinished series about President Lyndon Johnson has now consumed the last 40 years of his life.

“Professor Berman” by Hy Berman with Jay Weiner

“Professor Berman: The Last Lecture of Minnesota’s Greatest Historian” (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) is another collection of surprisingly evocative historical research notes. This book is nominally about Hy Berman, Minnesota’s leading historian of the late 20th Century. But it was written jointly by Berman and Minnesota author Jay Weiner, the latter of which had only a year to work with Berman before editing the final volume after his death.

Berman holds an interesting role in Minnesota history. A New Yorker, he knew relatively little about the state when he arrived to take a job at the University of Minnesota. The son of radical labor activists in Brooklyn, Berman would soon connect with a dentist in Hibbing named Rudy Perpich.

Perpich’s father, too, was a radical labor activist. In fact, the shared experiences of a Jewish family from New York and a Croatian-American family on the Iron Range provided Berman a central academic theme. He would spend his career exploring how ethnic identity and common struggles propelled American labor history.

In addition to teaching, Berman advised Perpich when he became the first governor from the Iron Range.

“A community without knowledge of its past is like a person with amnesia,” wrote Berman, in a speech delivered by Perpich. “It can exist and function from day to day, but its lack of memory leaves it without a feeling of purpose, direction, or identity. A sense of history is recognizing the influences of the past in the very web of our daily lives — in our habits of thought and speech, in the streets we walk though, in the ways we earn a living. It is in the touch of humility that comes with knowing that wherever we are in life, we stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before. For, as I have said, history is all of us.”

Caro came from less radical origins, though also from New York. His methodical, exhaustive research is unparalleled and, frankly, intimidating to some readers and fellow writers alike. But he sees such work as necessary for an informed democracy:

“I think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better,” said Caro, in an interview that appears in “Working.” “We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.”

Caro, now 84, is still years away from finishing the last book of his Lyndon Johnson series. And Berman, who died at age 90 in 2015, required Jay Wiener to cobble together his final lecture notes in “Professor Berman.”

Old historians never die. They just finally finish their books. For someone working on such a book there is comfort in that.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Feb. 23, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. I was so impressed with The Power Broker when I read it 20 years ago. I’ve listened to a few interviews with Caro, and he frequently refers to a piece of advice given to him by an early mentor: “Turn every page”–meaning, when you’re researching a story, read everything you have, even materials which you don’t think will be that useful. There’s no telling where gems of information will turn up. Often, when I’m tired and hungry from sitting in front of a computer for hours, and I feel like I can just pass over this or that trivial document, I do a mental Caro-check and read it. The advice has paid off.

    • The book I’m writing, at best, will be an echo of The Power Broker. That book was outstanding. I am limited by my lack of courage to quit my job and turn pages for five years. But it’s great advice and the right way to do things. I am continually surprised by where I find information; so often not where I expect.

  2. It has been said that without urban destruction of Robert Moses there might have all the aspects of hip hop we have come to know. This is one source I like that sets the stage nicely ….

    Jay Winer is a a sainted writer in my book no pun intended…His book Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles lays out nicely how the public gets ripped off. I was fortunate to get him to speak to my classes a couple of times prior to the above book coming out when he was began rattling cages of efforts to build a public stadium and then after when he no longer was writing for the Strib..

    Very nice blending of writers and books.

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