Editor’s note: History here and now

Living through history gives me a deeper appreciation for people like Levitan, who preserve and retell the true tales, no matter how painful or incredulous.
Capitol from above in a drone shot at night
Photo by Ben Puls

Stu Levitan has an incredible talent for describing a historic moment in time and making you feel like you’re experiencing it firsthand.

The details, the direct quotes, the concise narrative — he’s able to turn a history lesson into a great read. Madison columnist and author Doug Moe aptly described him as “Madison’s wise old sage; a fact-driven student of the city’s history, tireless civic participant, esteemed author.”

Levitan is a longtime contributor to the magazine, and I’m astounded every time by the homework and fact-collecting that accompany his Madison history pieces for us, often adapted from his own literature. (I laugh to myself a bit when assigning fact-checking, knowing full well that if they get stuck on verifying something, the most reliable source to turn to is, well, the author they’re fact-checking.)

Among many other stories that pre-date my time with the magazine, Levitan has written about Madison’s summer of discontent in 1967 that involved riots, racial tension and a pivotal protest; about the Mifflin Street block party that turned into a three-night riot in 1969; and in this issue about Madison making civil rights history in 1963 with the state’s first fair housing code.

It feels somewhat stunning to read about Madison’s defining moments in such great detail 50-plus years removed, especially for someone like me who wasn’t alive for all the action.

But with all that’s happened since March 2020, I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m living amid real-time action — and I hate it.

I wondered how Levitan was feeling as a historian, so I called him up, catching him on his regular three-mile walk.

“I’m scared to death of living through history,” he told me. “Most of the history that’s remembered are not the high points — they’re the dangerous points, the bad points.”

Living through history gives me a deeper appreciation for people like Levitan, who preserve and retell the true tales, no matter how painful or incredulous. Levitan did clarify that he has no interest in documenting current times. “Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, no,” he says. He’ll stick to his niche of Madison history, primarily the ’60s.

I’m sure it will be a trip to read the 50-year anniversary stories of the 2020 pandemic, the Trump era and, sadly, the Jan. 6, 2021 domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Most of the time, you don’t realize that you’re living through historic times until you look back and say, ‘Oh, look at the arc of what happened here.’ But clearly, since March we have known — since 2016 we’ve known — we’ve been living in fraught and historic times. The advantage that the historians of the future, God willing that there be [historians], is that the contemporaneous documentary evidence will exist in staggering amounts.”

My condolences to the future historians, as well as all those who have to read those history pieces, in 2070. I’d be glad to give a colorful interview to that generation’s Stu Levitan.