One of my categories is titled “Deconstructing History”. If I could get a PhD in it I would. It occurred to me it might not be clear what I mean by “Deconstructing History”. So I will explain what I feel that term means.
History is the story of our past. Not all history is the same, and significantly different sides of the same event would tell a different history of that event. There likely is no real truth but there are broad accidental departures from the truth, there is deliberate deception of the truth, there is run away truth, and there is simply differing views. There is also in modern times the force of written history including books and movies and even poems that define history with very different degrees of accuracy.
This journey started for me with two events in history and one source of history. These include an explorer, a poet and a pirate. See, isn’t history already interesting?
Now, I have no idea who really said “History is written by the Winners”, but it has been accredited to Napoleon, Churchill, and Walter Benjamin. Likely others as well. Two of those we know due to war. But in this case winning does not just refer to a war.
If I win a war I get to write the history, that’s simple to see. What if I am the one who is the victim of a crime? If the perpetrator is caught, the victim’s account will likely be given more credit than the perpetrator’s.
Lemme put winning in a different context as well. Say I write an account of an event that I was not part of. I’m not the first to write about it but my account becomes very popular and read by many. Over time it can easily become the accepted account of the event. Because so many read about it and had similar experience from the reading, it can become “common knowledge” when it is not knowledge at all.
In this case, the “winner” is the author who wrote a popular account of an event and thus became the official record of that event, even though they had no intention or qualification to be so.
So lets get back to my original trilogy of inspiration. I have covered the explorer in a previous post, Columbus.
Columbus Day as it is increasingly not being known by, was likely a Eurocentric white wash of American History. Was it a plot or conspiracy, I doubt it. It likely came over time when a still very young nation was trying to define itself much like a pre-teen tells lies to make themselves seem more to their liking. In effect creating their own manifest destiny, so did our nation. Tell the history we wish we had and eventually it becomes our history and we become who we want to be.
But I grew up in the middle of Colonial America and it took me until about 4th grade to start to see much of the American History we were taught was wrong.
I was also not far from the revolutionary pre-colonial areas and certain characters that came up in our history books very often seemed to me to come up way too often. One of those characters that seemed to recur in that time’s history was Paul Revere. My suspicion of him started in grade school as well. He was too good. Ever notice our heroes are often not pure even though we lie as much as we can to make them pure? I later knew this to be “historical polish”.
The odd thing to me is that even when the hero is flawed, they still acted heroically or we would not have seen them as one, so why polish the hero? In High School I wrote a paper on “the noble flaw”. I don’t know if I invented this but it occurred to me when reading about Sir Lancelot and his love for Guinevere. Really it was about King Arthur’s interpretation of his perfect Knight’s love for the king’s wife. In order to be perfect, one must be flawed. So why do we polish? Got me. This is why I like to look at history and figure out what destiny someone was trying to manifest by polishing history.
Lemme give you an example of what I mean by deconstructing history. The poet I mentioned was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem in question is Paul Revere’s Ride. This is the source of so much definition of that event that almost no one knows the rest of the story. The real story.
The poem tells of Revere’s solo ride through the Massachusetts countryside warning all that, “THE BRITISH ARE COMING, THE BRITISH ARE COMING, after being signaled by the old north church tower using two lanterns… Almost none of that is right.
First, they were almost all British so yelling that would not tell anyone anything. It would be like riding through NYC yelling the Americans are coming. Secondly, he didn’t yell anything because there were about as many colonialists loyal to the crown as those who wanted independence. Third, he didn’t ride alone. Fourth, he was not signaled by the lanterns in the old north tower, he lit and set the lanterns in the old north tower. The two lanterns part is accurate.
I became intrigued by how this one poem could get things so wrong. I first blamed Longfellow. But I later learned and understood that Hank was not trying to be right, he was trying to inspire, which is what a poet is supposed to do. So the fault does not lie with Longfellow, it lies with those who took a poem as historical fact and taught it to generations of children. Without intent, your teachers and Longfellow lied to you.
William Dawes. Know him? You may be startled to learn he rode with Paul Revere to Lexington. The whole way! Right there beside Paul and got no credit. There were others as well. Think of how important this action was. You would not send one rider. You would not send one pair together. You would send several pairs. Most of the others are lost to time. However, do you know the name Sam Prescott? He joined Revere and Dawes in Lexington to ride with them to Concord. Here is the twist of historical ironical “polish” that so often occurs, Revere was captured and he was the only one NOT to make it to Concord. Revere was the only one known to not complete the mission.
The deletion of all the other riders in this poem and then horribly, by teachers who were relying on a poem as history is the sad part. I would say that it is not that they are deleted, there were 1,000s of heroes of the revolution. It is that one was unfairly elevated. It did inspire further poetry though …
‘Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear—
My name was Dawes and his Revere.
Helen Moore 1896.
Longfellow was a powerful poet and set a pedestal under several historical figures. He did so with knowledge of blurring history but he was not trying to be a historian, he was being a poet and this is the inspiration for the creative history of the poem. The poem was penned on the eve of the Civil War and Longfellow was trying to inspire heroes to prevent the war. Inspire he did, but he did not reach the goal he was trying for, just like Revere.
So this is one of those long journeys I started when I was in primary school and simply did not believe all the hype about one man in that era. He could not have done all I was told. Over the years I found better resources and learned the truth. I also learned when history is giving you the hard sell, don’t buy. Watch out “General” Custer, I’m looking your direction…
I don’t fault Longfellow. I don’t fault Revere! I am not politically correct, I do blame the educational system for being lazy asses and teaching lies. Same goes for Columbus. The man never set foot on the continents of the Americas and was not the first to reach the Americas. I don’t blame Columbus either, he never believed he wasn’t in India!
So I started looking into other aspects of history, mostly American history but not exclusively. I want to know the real story, not the accepted story. My apple need not be polished. The real story is more interesting. The real story doesn’t tell you the story people may want, but the truth is just the truth. It doesn’t aim to please.
There is another reason for my quest. Like a pre-teen telling lies so the world will see him or her the way they want to be seen, the lies eventually paint a very false picture. This is not patriotism, or nationalism, or loyalty or even honesty. Lets be who we are, and let that be what we see in the bright of day. I want to see accurately, the good and the bad.
Only then do we know who we are, where we are and how we got here. I tell this to my clients often: If I were to put you randomly in the United States and tell you to go directly to Cleveland, you first must figure out where you are.
Deconstructing history, allows us to know where we are. And the added benefit of how we got here. Only then will we get where we want to go. Maybe not Cleveland though…