January 27, 2011

Why Knox?

Henry Knox, by Gilbert Stuart
You know how, when you get a new car, suddenly you notice just how many other people have that same exact car. You suddenly notice the car you chose, a four-wheeled appliance the sole purpose of which is to move you and your stuff from point A to point B, that every automotive marketing campaign wants you to believe is an extension of you, an extension of your personality or yikes, an extension of your self-worth, is also an extension of your neighbor, that weird guy at the Laundromat and every 7th person you pass on the road. Suddenly you feel a little less special than you did, a little less unique than you thought you were. So, to make yourself feel special, to get back that feeling of uniqueness you get yourself some zebra print seat covers, tint the windows and slap on a set of shiny new wheels.

This is a little like how I felt when I decided to study Henry Knox and the Knox Trail for this semesters Independent Study. Of course, decided is a bit misleading actually. You see the idea of retracing the trail of historical markers commemorating the improbable winter journey of a brilliant, but young and untested, colonel in the rebel army of colonial America is the first and only one that came me two weeks before I pitched it. Saying I decided assumes I had made a choice among possibilities, not the case. If was going to do this Knox was it.

I had been intrigued by Knox’s contributions to the American Revolution, particularly his mission to retrieve desperately needed artillery from 300 miles away to force the British out of Boston, ever since reading a biography of Washington as a solider. It was a pedestrian account of Washington bumbling about in the Ohio River Valley during the French & Indian War and later flashes of brilliance during the Revolution, but Knox always stood out for me. So here I was with a topic, all shiny and new, to me, just like a new car. Surely nobody else was interested in my topic; nobody I knew had even heard of him. “Knox, isn’t that the Fort where the gold is?” they asked. Well, yes the United States Bullion Depository is located on the U.S. Army post named after Henry Knox. A second fort in Maine, the city of Knoxville, TN, counties in nine states and a military tugboat are also named in his honor. The later honor is quite fitting given Knox’s stout physique and reputation for strength. In addition, historical commissions in both New York and Massachusetts, in 1927, had installed the very string of markers I now propose to visit and bicentennial celebrations in both states brought renewed interest in the travels of Knox’s artillery train, but surely this lessor known hero of the Revolution had been all but forgotten nearly 35 years later.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Just as I was driving my shiny new idea off the lot I realized I wasn’t alone in my interest. Others were driving the same idea I was. Both Pittsfield and Great Barrington are celebrating their 250th year. This means that local history is in the news. It means local historians, like Bernard A. Drew, are sharing their interest in Knox with the public and local reporters are printing snippets with glaring historical inaccuracies. Elsewhere, historical societies are remembering Knox with talks and slideshows. Indeed, I’m seeing my new car everywhere. Knox, the Trail and at least one impersonator account for dozens of Facebook pages. One page has the amusing title of “Henry Knox: Overweight White Guy, American Hero”. A search of “Henry Knox” on Twitter reveals a multitude of Tweets with Knox quotes or starting with “Today in 1776, Henry Knox . . .” in both English and Spanish. The Twitter feed for this project is at HnryKox. I take some solace in the knowledge that Hudson, Ford and David Thoreau overshadow Knox in Google results. Apparently Henry is being Facebooked and Tweeted more than Googled.

So, what am I doing driving the same car as everyone else? Where’s the interest? Well, that’s precisely it; the interest lies in how everyone else is remembering Knox. A friend recently admitted she had likely walked past one of the Knox Trail markers a hundred times while working nearby, she’d seen the stone, but never bothered to look closer. Conversely, on a recent afternoon photographing markers I meet a business owner and neighbor who took time out to inquire about my interest in Knox and made sure I knew there were other markers nearby. And obviously Knox has found his way to the Internet 200+ years since his death. How do we live with history everyday? How do we interact with the figures we’ve exalted, or the ones thought forgotten? Do we notice the markers and monuments once erected? How are the significant and insignificant being celebrated in the 21st century? These are the interesting questions.

Examining the what, why, where, who and how of remembering Knox is a means to taking a fresh look at the topic. This project is how I propose to slap some shiny new wheels on Henry Knox.

Next Post: Walking in Gt. Barrington with Knox & Bernard Drew.

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