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Stories worth revisiting: Valley writer Bruce Watson gives U.S. history a fresh look at his website The Attic

  • Buce Watson in the attic of his Montague home, where — weather permitting — he likes to do some of his writing and reading. Photo by Paul Franz/Gazette file photo

  • Veteran writer Bruce Watson of Montague, who’s written several well-reviewed books about U.S. history, has created a popular website, The Attic, that offers shorter essays about American culture and history. Above is Watson shown in the attic of his Montague home, where — weather permitting — he likes to do some of his writing and reading. Photo by Paul Franz/Gazette file photo

  • U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith, at right, on the set of the 1950s U.S. television news program “Face the Nation”; Eleanor Roosevelt is to the left. Smith condemned the behavior of her Senate colleague and fellow Republican Joe McCarthy in 1950 for alleging many Democrats were actually communists or supported them.  National Archives and Record Adminstration/public domain

  • Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady, addresses unemployed women at a “She-She-She” camp in 1933 in New York state. This is one of the largely forgotten stories from U.S. history that Watson writes about for The Attic. National Archives and Record Adminstration/public domain



Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 12, 2020

About four years ago, Bruce Watson felt he’d come to a crossroads.

The Montague writer had written four well-reviewed books on topics from 20th-century American history, and many more history articles for publications such as Smithsonian magazine and American Heritage. For over 25 years, he’d also written a humor column for the Amherst Bulletin.

But Watson felt his sense of humor disappearing beneath the onslaught of partisan anger that defined so much of the 2016 presidential campaign — and which has continued pretty much nonstop since. He also was getting turned down by magazine publishers when he pitched new history articles to them, at least in part because of declining publishing budgets.

So why not try something else? How about a website that would be dedicated to forgotten stories from American history, ones that would be focused on shared narratives from our past, on portraits of artists, writers, scientists and others who helped shape the country? How about people such as Frances Perkins (a Mount Holyoke College graduate), who was instrumental in helping create the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor?

“I was tired of all the anger,” Watson said in a recent phone interview. “It seemed like it was driving so much of the coverage and content in magazines and newspapers.… At the same time, it felt like something was really being lost with our history. You have to know your country, know the past to move past all the anger.”

That brings us to “The Attic,” the online site Watson debuted in January 2017, where he now offers readers “true stories for a kinder, cooler America,” a place to rummage around and find “common ground, not more minefields.”

Since then, Watson has published a new story each week, now pegged at a strict limit of about 800 words, offering snapshots from American history, predominantly though not exclusively from the 20th century. Politics can be part of the subject, though they are not the focus.

One recent entry, for instance, profiled the moment in 1950 when Maggie Chase Smith, the junior Republican senator from Maine, denounced her GOP colleague Joe McCarthy and his ranting about communists in the U.S. government. Another looked at the little-known story of the “She-She-She” camps — work sites for unemployed women — that were part of Roosevelt’s New Deal program during the Great Depression, a female counterpart to the CCC, or Civilian Conservation Corps, in which unemployed men developed natural resources on publicly owned rural lands.

In his humor column for the Bulletin (it ended in 2017), and in some of his books, Watson did not hide his own liberal politics. His 2011 book “Freedom Summer,” for example, examined the effort to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote during the heat of the civil rights movement in 1964; blacks and activists regularly faced violence from white supremacists in the state.

But The Attic, he says, is not about scoring political points: It’s about “bringing back those stories that show who we are and where we came from, even when there was conflict and anger, because we were able to move past that.” Not surprisingly, Watson considers the work of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns an inspiration for his own approach to storytelling.

That message seems to be resonating. In January 2017, Watson says he averaged about 39 web visitors a week. This past January, weekly visits averaged over 1,700. Similarly, he drew about 5,000 visitors his first year, compared to over 51,300 in 2019, and a fair amount of that readership, he notes, is coming from overseas (as much as 50 percent recently, especially from India).

The website is free, though donations are encouraged — Watson says he has a core group of contributors and has also looked into getting some grant funding — and he’s specifically designed story length for people who like to upload the stories to their cell phones or tablets. Subscribers get one story emailed to them on every Sunday.

History as stories,not dry facts

In addition to his writing — some of his more recent book projects have included a short biography of comedian Jon Stewart and a history of the Jones Library in Amherst — Watson has a background as a history and writing teacher (he’s now retired). At one time an elementary school teacher, he also taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hampshire College, Bard College and most recently at a charter high school in Devens. He earned a masters in history at UMass Amherst.

He’s brought some of that experience to his writing for The Attic, conscious that history can be “a pretty dry subject” if it’s not taught well or written with some flair.

That said, Watson says he’s not interested in looking at the past through rose-tinted lenses or with a pop-culture sensibility. In a recent piece, “The Twenties and the Nostalgia Trap,” he recalled the “Roaring Twenties” and suggested that in the year 2020, there’s a temptation to think today’s America stinks but that 100 years ago, all was glitz and glamour with the advent of jazz, radio, new consumer goods and growing, brightly lit cities.

Actually, he notes, it was an era notable for extreme poverty and gross disparities in wealth, crippling diseases such as measles and polio, child labor, government agents arresting and deporting “Reds” and other suspicious foreigners, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other nasty stuff.

“Alas, the cure for nostalgia is harsh,” Watson writes. “History is bitter medicine, but as we enter these new Twenties, a full dose is just what the doctor ordered.”

“I hate nostalgia,” he said with a laugh. “But I like stories that show how people could be faced with serious problems but find a way to work through them.”

Case in point is a piece he wrote about the young poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who in the despair-filled year of 1918, when World War I and Spanish Influenza was killing millions of people, wrote a number of poems that celebrated youthful optimism and hope, especially the very short “First Fig” that included the memorable line “My candle burns at both ends.”

“Finding and writing about people who worked against the grain in some way or pushed back against hard times is always a pleasure,” Watson said.

Some of his story ideas are holdovers from ones he previously pitched unsuccessfully to magazines; others are events with which he had a passing familiarity but were worth closer examination. He says one of the most popular ones on his website — “The Loving Couple” — profiles Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple jailed in Virginia in 1958 for violating a state law forbidding black and white marriages. Their case eventually led to a 1967 Supreme Court decision that overturned all barriers to interracial marriages across the U.S.

Watson likes to point to a quote from a pretty respected writer in his day on the value of using these kinds of snapshots to examine the past. “If history were taught in the form of stories,” Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “it would never be forgotten.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To see more of Bruce Watson’s writing of history, visit the theattic.space.