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.

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2 thoughts on “The Story of America (as told in 1889)

  1. Pingback: TSoA: Myths and Knowing Your Audience « The Academy's Bench Warmer

  2. Pingback: TSoA: Details, Schmetails « The Academy's Bench Warmer

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