For the chronicler, the charm of history lies in the fact that—if only he waits a sufficient time before setting down his tale—he can always trace the fall of an empire to the loss of a horseshoe nail. Hermann B. Deutsch, “The Incredible Yanqui.”
It’s difficult to subscribe to any grand theories of history when examining the historical record. If you zoom back enough, events can appear to have some kind of order, some kind of logical cause-and-effect.
However, when you zoom in, it’s akin to witnessing Brownian motion through a microscope. Chaos seems to rule. While we are—on some level at least—rational beings, we often pursue an irrational course of action. Chance and chaos have played too large a role in the events of history for any grand theory to neatly explain anything.
We can, however, follow a chain of events back to its source. And often, the fall of an empire can indeed be traced to the loss of a horseshoe nail, given the requisite distance and perspective. The events described in the (fantastic) book from which the above quote is taken—The Incredible Yanqui by Hermann Deutsch—are a case in point.
Deutsche’s narrative non-fiction account concerns the life of a man who was extremely well-known one hundred years ago, but who has since been forgotten. Lee Christmas, a Louisiana native, was at the beginning of what he hoped would be a long career working the railroad when he fell asleep, drunk, at the throttle and crashed straight into an oncoming locomotive. Continue reading