A Passion for History

by Stephen Minot

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870

Kraft, an American historian, college lecturer, and writer, wants to escape the demands and distractions of his busy life. He has used the royalties from his book on the radical movement to purchase a large plot of land in rural Nova Scotia. The story begins at a boathouse, where Kraft is conversing with a young woman named Thea.

As they talk, Kraft is dismissive about his academic work, self-conscious that his work ostensibly compromises his professed radical values. Nevertheless, he is proud of the way he perceives and teaches history, emphasizing the lives of ordinary people, rather than kings. Trying to express this idea to Thea, he is condescending, repeating himself and overly simplifying as if he were talking to a child. He tells her that “history is people. Little people.”

Immediately following this exchange between Kraft and Thea, the narrator backs away from the characters and presents another framed picture. A man and woman embrace and kiss, and the man begins to unbutton the woman’s dress. As the narrator backs still farther away from the man and woman, the reader’s view turns out on the surrounding environment—estuaries, river, sea, and Kraft’s large house, which is a bit of an embarrassment to Kraft. Once again, his actions compromise his values. Owning a vacation home on nearly a thousand acres is inconsistent with his reputation as a radical.

Kraft usually retreats to this weathered old house in Nova Scotia with his family, but this spring he has come alone, ostensibly to work. As he proceeds to undress Thea, he thinks about his wife. He knows that she would consider his affair a serious transgression. He concurs, but this does not alter his behavior.

Thea’s father approaches, interrupting the younger couple. Old Mr. McKnight has come to the house for coffee, after which he will go back out to scavenge on the beach. As Kraft considers McKnight, his mind moves back and forth between being present with this man as another human being and surveying him from an academic distance, putting him in historical perspective. He makes parenthetical notes about the wooden wheel of the barrow that the old man pushes and about scavenging as an economic necessity of a forgotten time in history.

Kraft’s mind is always leaping to a point of historical perspective, and in this way he removes himself from the present moment and the real lives of Thea and her father. Thea observes that his constant backward glance will turn him to salt. Doubly binding him, Kraft is also either cursed or blessed—he is unsure which—with verbatim recollection of the observations he has written in his journal. He is bound not only by his historical perspective, but also in his recollection of his historical perspective. He tells himself that this “historical sense of reality” is necessary to keep his affair with Thea from seeming too complicated.

McKnight enters the kitchen where Kraft and Thea wait for him. The old man calls Kraft into a workroom to see the frame of a rowboat that he is making. McKnight moves Kraft’s hand along the smooth keel. His boats are made only of wood—no nails, only pegs. He is proud of his Old World workmanship. Then he abruptly gets up from the table and leaves, off to see what the receding tide has deposited on the beach.

Alone again, Kraft broods over an imaginary sepia photograph of Thea that haunts him. He tells her that she must feel trapped, that there is nothing for her to do, nothing to read; however, she does not see her life in this way. She reminds him that she has her cleaning, mending, cooking, and gardening. When he tells her that she is isolated, she can only respond that now, at this moment, she is not alone. She lives in the present, and while Kraft admires and envies the simplicity and order of her life, he cannot understand it. He can see it only from his own perspective—from his own experience of modern American life.

As they resume their lovemaking, Kraft determines to stay mentally, physically, and emotionally rooted in this present moment. His wife and children will join him in a week, but this does not seem to bother Thea. They have the present, she says; they have a whole week. Kraft begins to unbutton Thea’s dress. His determination to put his wife from his mind is futile—he foolishly promises Thea that he will not even think about her. However, just bringing up her name interrupts the moment, and Kraft cannot keep his mind in the present with Thea. Their lovemaking proceeds, but it is merely another of the pictures of Kraft’s life.

Later, as Kraft climbs the hill toward his own house, he cannot resist the urge to look back at the McKnight house. What he sees is from a time in the future, which puts this moment in the long-ago past. He sees the boathouse in ruins. No smoke is coming from the sagging chimney, the roof has rotted, the windows are broken. There are no flowers. There is no life in this picture. It is all history.

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