If you had a time machine and could travel back to an event that changed the course of American history, what event would you choose? This is the question editor Byron Hollinshead asked twenty well-known historians in I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America. Each replied with an essay about the time and place that he or she finds most interesting, often an incident related to a book that he or she has written. Of course, the times chosen vary greatly. The first is a visit to the ancient native American community of Cahokia on a festival day and the last is a meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace to discuss police violence at civil rights demonstrations in Alabama.
I think that I would like to witness the Wright Brothers flights at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 to be present when easy distant travel became probable. Of course, there is always bad with good, as aerial warfare also became more possible on that day. I would also like to be in Washington, D.C. on the day in 1800 that Congress accepted Thomas Jefferson's books to establish the Library of Congress. Did Congress realize the importance of its act? None of the historians chose these events.
Mary Beth Norton chose to view the Salem witch trials as her wish come true. As a historian she has a list of questions that she believes that she could answer by being there. Carolyn Gilman wishes that she could witness Meriwether Lewis realizing that his Corps of Volunteers would need Shoshone Indian help to reach the Columbia River. Clayborne Carson chose the civil rights march in Washington in 1963, an event that he actually did attend as a college student. He'd like to go back and see what he missed.
Some of the historians are authors that many librarians and readers will recognize, such as Joseph J. Ellis, Robert V. Remini, Thomas Fleming, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Because it collects such noted writers, I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America can serve as a good introduction to reading history. It can be offered as a sampler for readers in search of new interests. It will also appeal to magazine or short story readers, who would rather have an essay than a book. The book is available in many public libraries, as is a followup, I Wish I'd Been There, Book Two: European History.
Hollingshead, Byron, ed. I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America. Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 9780385516198