Chapter II of The Story of America is called “The Legendary Century,” and includes the delightful subheading, “Myths, Legends and Traditions.” In this chapter (and the next about Columbus, and I’m sure many of the following chapters), Peattie didn’t draw a fine line between the different types of narratives; myth, legend, and tradition weave together so tightly that facts take on secondary importance.* But I’m more taken by the way Peattie starts the chapter: “Little children, standing on the shores of Europe and looking toward the west, could make no guess at what lay beyond the water.” Given that Peattie wrote this book for young readers, this is a pretty good opening. She knows her audience: kids who have never been to Europe and probably never will be, but who know what it’s like look in some direction and wonder what’s out there. She may be talking about strange adults from different places who spoke unintelligible languages, but in one sentence, she makes it a little less foreign. More than that: she seizes on a fundamental human experience — wonder. As the children of Europe wondered about the world, so did the Norsemen, Columbus, and the late-19th century adolescent reading The Story of America. And us, too — we wonder. What else is curiosity and the drive to know and understand? I’m just spitballing here, but I think a particular sense of wonder might set history apart from other fields. Part of the reason that someone buys a story of a boy growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (currently #2 at Powell’s) is the question, “What was that like?” The past is strange, and that’s compelling, because there were people like you and me there and then. We want to understand that different world, and — note the phrasing of the question, “what was that like” — we want that world related to us in terms that we can understand. The job of the historian lies somewhere in that relationship: seizing on the human sense of wonder and cultivating it while also making the past more familiar and intelligible.
* For instance, Peattie devotes most of chapter two to the “well known” discoveries of the Northmen, who (Peattie says) ranged from Newfoundland to Martha’s Vinyard to Massachusetts, leaving skeletons in armor and bearing “little Snorre, the first child of European blood born in America.” Peattie also notes the “traditions” of Chinese, “Buddhist,” and Welsh explorers and settlers. All of this strikes me as…odd, given that (a) rarely do Norse adventures in America come up anymore and (b) I’m pretty sure the Welsh stories of white Indians were bogus, probably for racist reasons (the undiscovered civilized Welsh Indians justifying conquest/extermination of uncivilized real Indians…surely there’s a book on this? A dissertation-in-waiting?).