A Voyage Long and Strange
by Tony Horwitz
by Rick Pearlstein
Who Writes The Narratives Of What We Believe?
Have you ever wondered how it is that we come to accept certain versions of history and what we believe about ourselves and those we associate with? I’m not talking about historical or moral relativism. I’m talking about how we come to accept certain narratives about our own history that are not necessarily or even remotely true. History is more shaped to a narrative than just existing as fact.
Winston Churchill is known, among his many fames, for stating that history is written by the victors. Yet, I contend that history is not necessarily what happened, but what certain historians posit happened based on the evidence they are able to uncover. The deeper the historian delves into the context of the time and places the discovered facts into the context, can we understand not just what happened in history, but hopefully why as well. It is a delicate balance the historian must make in not reading too much into the context.
But none of that matters when additions are made to the known facts or critical elements are left out of the narrative. Natalie Zemon Davis, who wrote one of the most important works on history and how we know what we know in her seminal work, The Return Of Martin Guerre, probably went too far in attributing to her heroine in the book feelings and thoughts that are not supported by the evidence and likely were influenced by Davis’s own modern sociology.
If you ask any school kid or adult how the United States was settled, they’ll almost automatically tell you that it was “the Pilgrims,” who landed on Plymouth Rock. But what happened during the nearly 130 years between Columbus’s 1492 voyage and the 1620 Pilgrim landing? Were these empty years? And how did the US in our present days become so politically polarized between left and right, using social, racial and economic cleavages to separate us further? Are we actually a country of rugged individuals, as some political commentators say when opposing certain government programs? How do we know?
Two books about very different historical times challenge us to rethink the popular narratives about what we know of early American history and the narrative which both political parties in the US today accept (even if only some within them actually believe it) about our current political system.
Tony Horwitz, in A Voyage Long and Strange, asks why Americans almost universally think that our country was discovered by the Pilgrims, with little knowledge of the Vikings, Conquistadores, and the Lost Colonists of modern day North Carolina. In many ways, Horowitz’s conclusion is essentially Churchill’s finding. The British colonists won the Revolutionary War and they were the ones who drove “manifestly” across the continent. Few people learn in school what you can see at a marker at the Grand Canyon, that Spanish Conquistador Fernando de Coronado and his men were the first Europeans to travel to, chronicle, and draw images of the Grand Canyon, the Four Corners region, the great plains of what are today Central Kansas and its bison.
Likewise, for anyone who has lived in the Deep South even in the modern age of air conditioning, it is nearly impossible to conceive how Hernando De Soto could have survived two years of discovery in a harsh and terrible land. De Soto’s army of nine ships, 600 men in metal armor, and 220 horses, plus a herd of pigs, could survive summer heat, pestilence and hardships in an uncharted land. After making shore in Tampa Bay de Soto marched inland up the Florida swamps, through present day Georgia and South Carolina, north past present day Charlotte, then over the mountains to present day Knoxville. He turn southward into Alabama, where de Soto himself met with Chief Tuscaloosa of the Creek Indians (of which meeting there is a wonderful mural in the community theater of Wetumpka, Alabama, near where the meeting took place), then west through Mississippi to the river itself. By 1542 he had lost a third of his men and all but 20 horses and had long since abandoned their armor for native buckskins while subsisting on what they could hunt or be given by local natives. After de Soto died in 1540 and his surviving men realized, in the middle of Texas, that a land march was impossible, they returned to the Mississippi, made rafts, floated down river, and around the coast to Mexico. 4 years hardship and over half the men dead, the survivors today are all but forgotten.
When the French and English rediscovered the region 100 years after de Soto, it is unlikely that they didn’t know he was first there. Yet today, Americans are perhaps even more ignorant of these first explorers than were foreigners in a time where communications can be believed to have been far more primitive than today. And if we forget the Spanish settlement of this continent, we certainly know even less of the Vikings long before the Spanish. But that is “old history.” We certainly hope to know more about our more recent history. Sadly, I find our ability to accept fiction in our narratives as normal in our day.
Rick Pearlstein, in Nixonland, writes about the fracturing of the United States during the Johnson administration while Richard Nixon was consolidating political strength and running for the presidency. From the Watts Riots, to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to violence on the streets of Washington DC, politicians of both parties, though Pearlstein focuses almost singularly on Nixon, used those tensions wherever they manifested and regardless of cause to strengthen the hand of government against the people, to be as strong as possible against lawlessness and to paint their challengers as enemies of the state and pawns of America haters.
When riots break out today over perceived inequalities in treatment, over perceived police brutality, or even over decisions of international relations like decisions about war, most Americans can agree to disagree about the causes and how to solve them. But politicians from either extreme end of the spectrum are shown as charlatans if they attempt to politically capitalize on the misfortunes of the suffering. But Pearlstein shows how Nixon made calculated decisions about his base that he used the social and political cleavages of the day to deepen them at the expense of the most vulnerable. Nixon is shown to have delayed school integration, to have targeted opponents with the IRS and tied anti-war activists to China. He was personally involved in his presidency with finding ways to not only harm, but eliminate the Democratic party “without a trace if we do this correctly.” This sounds eerily familiar to today and party politics since Nixon’s time.
So what do we take away from Pearlstein? Is it that Nixon was an evil man? We have to think beyond and greater than single word descriptors of presidents past. Nixon harnessed an underlying divide in the United States, and carefully used resentment as a tool. And as a result, his success made it possible for successive generations to take the easy road and harness present cleavages to gain power rather than fixing existing problems and uniting the people towards a negotiated center. It is true that there has always been a certain vitriol in American politics. One need only look back at flyers and circulars in the early 1800s. But it is a fictional narrative that this country was founded on the creed of rugged individualism, that Congress has never been able to come together for what is best for the country. And it is this fictional narrative that has been embraced by both political parties in the course of expediency because standing up and saying that this narrative is a recent invention could potentially expose one to the denunciation that he or she is not really American.
Horwitz and Pearlstein write very different books on different facets of American history. But one great lesson from both is that the truth we know may not be the truth we knew at an earlier time. I wonder how difficult, given the information revolution and the ease of associating with only those who think like you rather than those who live near you, it would be to reestablish the time where we look with interest to expand our knowledge of the past to make our present better for all.
Its no sin to question what we know. If you hear something that conflicts with what “everyone knows”, look it up. Questions things. Expand your knowledge and then apply that knowledge to whatever you’re doing.