TSoA: Myths and Knowing Your Audience

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?).


The Story of America (as told in 1889)

Friends, I present to you…

A few years ago, I salvaged this book from a box that my grandparents were sending off to the dump.  It sat on the shelf until last night, when I pulled it down just for fun.  And what fun it is!  First of all, there’s the author, Elia Peattie, who has her very own Wikipedia page and digital archive put together by Dr. Susanne George Bloomfield.  And for good reason: Peattie wrote this 754 page tome when she was 27 years old.  She was also the first female reporter at the Chicago Tribune and did all sorts of other things that underscore the utter futility and worthlessness of my own life.  Amazing.

And there’s the text itself.  Meant as a history for “young people,” (know any young people willing to read 754 pages?  Thought not), The Story of America looks pretty strong on the story part — a cracking yarn, they might have said in 1889 when Peattie wrote the book (WHEN SHE WAS 27!).  I’m excited to read it, for a few reasons.  First, I think we historians might learn a little something from young Peattie and her focus on telling a good story; if I could write half of what she did in such a way that “young people” would want to read it, I’d be pretty pleased.  Second, I’m fascinated by the potential differences in Peattie’s pre-20th century reading of the past and the dominant narrative(s) of our day–more on that in a moment.  And third, there are some great images in here, all hand-drawn, of course.  I’ll be sharing those as I go along, too.

Just flipping through the table of contents, you get a sense of the different era in which Peattie wrote.  The American Revolution doesn’t wrap up until page 408–well after half-way through the book.  Which is to say: for Peattie and her readers, most of American history happened before the United States even came into being.  Which is still true, after all; even if you start with 1492, the pre-Revolutionary period is still longer than everything since (283 years to 234 years, by my count).  There is stuff in here that I doubt even some of my colonial Americanist colleagues would know about, like the association of Bacon’s Rebellion with the call “Hey, for St. Mary’s!” (I’ll let you know when I find out–that’s in chapter XXIV).  And I can’t wait to get Peattie’s take on Haymarket, which happened just three years before Peattie wrote The Story and which she very well may have seen or even reported about (probably not, but what the hell).

Of course, one of the great temptations of a book like this is to say “Wow, wasn’t she stupid! We historians today know so much more.”  And this is true in some ways; in the first chapter, “Mastodons and Mystery,” Peattie writes that, “The monkey was here in what we call United States, and the camel and rhinoceros,” which seem to be tru-ish but not quite on the mark.  On the other hand, this seems like an opportunity to examine more closely my own beliefs about the past.  Would I be able to convince Peattie that she’s wrong and I’m right?  If not, I’m probably not worth two salts as a historian.  On a grander scale, this can serve as an experiment in postmodernism and the subjectivity of narratives.  Will I discover more or fewer truths while reading this book?

I’ll conclude by sharing with you Peattie’s preface.  We “professional historians” might not agree with all of Peattie’s goals, but some would serve us well:

The desire throughout, in the writing of this history, has been to record the heroic adventures and celebrate the picturesque incidents that make our history romantic and memorable. Such incidents as awaken patriotism and enthusiasm are those which are most worthy of preservation, and the influences they have upon the imaginative and generous minds of the young are incalculable. If some of the duller pages of the congressional debate and ineffectual law making have been neglected for these more brilliant chapters, it is not the young who will reproach us.

For the minds of the young select with unerring instinct those things which are of actual importance. They read with passionate tears of the martyrdom of the devoted; they are fired with heroism and lofty pride at the accomplishments of the heroic, and they condemn with bitter contempt the intrigues of the mean, and the cowardice of the time-serving. To arouse the noble impulse, and keep alive the love for patriotism, fidelity, bravery, and true holiness, has been the aim of the book.

It contains little that is new; but it has been sifted from the best histories, and the latest ones. It is, however, the first book to record the events of the last ten years, and these events it has tried to deal with impartially, unblinded by the conflict of parties, sects, or factions. If injustice has been done in any way, it has been unwitting. If it conveys, in understandable language, the most memorable occasions of our national history, condemning and praising where condemnation and praise are due, then it has accomplished all that it aimed to for its young readers.

Historians: What Do We Do Well?

I bought tea and cookies for a “senior” faculty person from another department yesterday, using the treats to lure him into a conversation about my career.  We had a lovely conversation, and though he did not offer to create a new tenure-track line for me (darn!), he offered some good suggestions, including ideas for finding work in places I hadn’t really considered.  More on that another time.  He also asked an important and challenging question:

“What is that you, as a historian, do well that you can offer to people who aren’t historians?”

It’s important for obvious reasons: (a) history teaching gigs are as rare as good beer in Utah*, so it’d be smart to focus on a more broadly useful skill set rather than labeling myself as a historian, (b) disciplines are stupid; if we’re interested in the pursuit of truth, we should use whatever methods lead us there, and (c) disciplines are anachronistic, a relic of the late-19/early 20th century.

It’s also a challenging question: what, exactly, do we do well?**  That is: what skills should historians possess that others might not have developed?  For graduate students locked inside their discipline for six years, this is a particularly difficult question; we’ve been trained/trained ourselves to speak with an ever-smaller circle of people with similar interests.  We get so far along that when asked what we do, we mumble something stupid about our dissertations and then roll our eyes when the honest listener expresses confusion with our gibberish.  And when we’re done, we head out on to the job market, where exactly no one gives two shits about our dissertations.

And so: some reflection on what historians should do well.  I ask, beg, and implore you ideas and reading suggestions.

  • Tell good stories.  Interesting, informative, engaging, comprehensive, relevant stories.  That’s what history is, after all: stories about the past.  My friends in chemistry may know their way around the lab and the path to giant piles of grant money, but we historians should be able to tell stories that keep butts on the edges of seats.  And that’s important, because stories are how we understand and make sense of the world.  Which is another thing we do…
  • Make sense of the past.  The past is weird, man.  People wore funny clothes and said crazy things and did all sorts of nutty stuff.  Historians should be able to get into the heads of those people and explain their world views and motivations.  At the same time, we can get out of those heads, and look at all of the other things driving people to do what they did.***
  • Make sense of the present.  We are here now because of where those weird people took us back then.  Want to understand race relations today?  Figure out the last two hundred years of American history.  Same thing goes with everything–look back to figure out where you are now.  Go ahead, call me a presentist.  I’ll call you totally irrelevant.  And then we’ll spit on each other.
  • Offer suggestions for the future.  Yeah, I said it: we should provide some prescriptions for what ails us.  We’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t in different contexts.  We have an obligation to make sure that understanding is part of relevant debates and discussions today.  People get smarter with age because they pay attention to and learn lessons from their experience.  My Gramps knows not to overdo it on the wine because he’s made a fool of himself in the past; I have yet to learn such a lesson.  Why shouldn’t we historians help others from making asses of themselves and the world?
  • Find stuff.  I think we often take this for granted, but historians are awfully good and tracking down obscure shit.  Fuel consumption between 1960 and 1977?  Here you go.  Songs sung by migrant workers during the Dust Bowl?  No problem.  Hopes and dreams of a Native American woman married to a French fur trapper?  Well…that might take me some time, but if I can’t find her words, I can help reconstruct her world and make some pretty good guesses on her life.  This is more than just go-for work; this is thinking about different points and methods of access to the past.  And the present, for that matter.

That’s a start, anyway.  I look forward to your suggestions, and I’ll keep working on it myself.


*I could be wrong about this, never having been to Utah.  But I lack folksy sayings, so I’m making them up as I go.

** I like the ring of this.  Sounds like a 50s song : “DO-wee-DO-well, DO-wee-DO-well…”

*** I’m talking about false consciousness, y’all.  It’s REAL.

Time Out

I finally submitted chapter number two last week.  That capped off a busy few weeks in which I wrote and sent off a book review, finished one article, sent off the images for another article, did six weeks of (pretty good) teaching, and wrote the chapter.  There’s also the matter of my spouse’s new-found unemployment.  Put it all together, and it feels like I’ve been in a sprint for about six weeks.  It’s not as stressful as a proper job, obviously, but I think I need a time-out to get a handle on where I am and where I’m going.  Not a vacation or break, mind you, but just a couple days of deliberate reflection on what I want and need to do next.

This is one of the moments, I think, to take a step back and look at my academic mission statement and evaluate my progress.  On the whole, I think it’s going well.  I’ve written two interesting (although perhaps not “relevant”) chapters, and I’ve focused my teaching on getting students to think about effective storytelling, which is at the core of good history.  But that’s where I am now.  Next year will be different; no more guaranteed funding to allow me to write, and no telling if there will be teaching gigs to cobble together.  If I’m going to keep writing and teaching, I need to get myself positioned for jobs.  I need to write and teach today in a way that makes writing and teaching tomorrow (well, next year) possible and probable.  That means choosing my next chapter with an eye to the job market, writing teaching statements, making sure that I have evaluations (from students and colleagues) to supplement my application packages.  Can I do it?  Stay tuned.  Or not.

The Twitch Is Back

Wait, isn’t that a riff on an Elton John tune?  Damn.  Totally inadvertant.

Anyway, my left arm twitch is back.  I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my second chapter is now over two weeks late, and I promised, promised, to have the draft to my committee today.  I’m pretty sure “today” is going to end up being at 11:59pm tonight.

The alternative, of course, is to plead for understanding (which I’d get from my eternally gracious and forgiving committee) and submit the chapter tomorrow or the day after.  You know, live the life of the scholar for whom deadlines only serve to limit imagination, creativity, and originality.  Sometimes I buy into that.  But other times I just need to put my head down and get my shit done.  I think today’s one of those days.  Sadly, this means missing out on a mountain bike ride this afternoon.  But them’s the breaks.