kottke.org posts about Alger Hiss

Human wormholes and the Great SpanJan 30 2012

At the end of last week's post about John Tyler's grandsons still being alive (and indeed, NY Mag did an interview with one of them), I provided a couple of other examples of living persons bridging distant historical periods and asked:

Someone needs to come up with a term for this sort of thing (history bridges? no.)

On Twitter, David Galbraith suggested "timebenders". After more thought, I came up with "human wormholes" but that's not quite right either. Tony Hiss, in a book about his father Alger (the accused Soviet spy), said that Alger had a term for stories kind of like these: the Great Span.

My father himself even had a name for a kind of ongoing closeness between people in which death is sometimes only an irrelevance. He called it "the Great Span," a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple of hundred years or more.

Hiss cites a pair of stories involving Alger (who died in 1996) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who Alger clerked for and also figured in one of my earlier examples. In one story, Holmes told Alger about his experience fighting in the Civil War. The other story reaches back even further:

In the Holmes story Alger treasured above all others, the Justice told him that when he had been very young, his grandmother, a woman he revered, had shared her memories of the day at the beginning of the American Revolution when she was five and had stood in her father's front window on Beacon Hill in Boston and watched rank after rank of Redcoats marching through town.

Another instance of the Great Span are the three Civil War widows (Maudie Hopkins, Alberta Martin, and Gertrude Janeway) who lived into the 2000s, two of them collecting their husbands' pensions until their deaths. (thx, mike & @ithinkihaveacat)

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