This weekend was the first Montclair (N.J.) Literary Festival, a three-day event taking place at four venues in town. As someone who writes a lot of blog posts about history I started the day by heading to the session titled “Facing History and Ourselves.” Two authors of history and historical fiction and a history professor were on the panel.
When initially presented with the question of why they chose to write about history, the answer was pretty unanimous. There are just so many stories that haven’t been told. And I’d guess that many of those stories would be so much more interesting and relevant to us than a lot of the stories that do get told. It is hard to call the history that is taught in our schools a story. What we get is dates, names, wars, presidents, etc. History textbooks are generally horrible and one suspects that little research goes into them. Rather they are probably a rewrite exercise.
So we learn about slavery without learning what the slaves thought. We learn about wars without understanding the impact on the soldiers, other than a body count. We seem to celebrate Manifest Destiny but don’t hear from the Native Americans. It is a history of documents, based on PR, propaganda, government pronouncements and historical calendars. I’d like to think that’s changing, but I see no real evidence of it. My teenage son, who goes to a relatively progressive middle school, came home the other day complaining about his social studies class in which the current unit on American history consists primarily of the dates and names of colonial era legislation.
The authors on the panel brought up some other examples. Stephen Tolty, who is doing research for a book about the Vietnam War, described an instance in 1972 when the Nixon White House wanted to respond to a North Vietnamese initiative with an intensive bombing campaign. But the units on the ground in Vietnam ignored this for a few days and instead focused on trying to rescue one of their colleagues who had been captured. Why? Because the American soldiers hadn’t really bought into the narrative that led us to war and at this point assumed it was a lost cause anyway. Our history books tell us about Nixon and Kissinger, but not about these guys.
Author Ellery Washington raised a personal example. He noted how as a gay black kid growing up in Albuquerque, he felt completely left out of the historical narrative. He suggested the feeling of not being part of the story as a possible reason for the kind of top-down anti-intellectualism we are experiencing. Our history texts celebrate industrialization without much thought to the crafters and independent service providers who were put out of business. Do we likewise celebrate the march of technology without giving much thought to the factory workers whose jobs have disappeared and is that part of the explanation for Trump’s election.
Washington commented that “there is a difference between facts and truth. Truth speaks to something larger that includes facts.” I would add that there is also such a thing as untruths that can come from partial facts.
At a time when not only Americans, but Europeans as well, have decided that immigrants are the source of all of their economic and security problems, one of my favorite historical topics is the untold history of immigrants. About a year ago I wrote a series of posts on the history of beer in New Jersey. It was a history made by German immigrants in the city of Newark. And those German immigrants were looked upon in much the same way that Latino and Muslim immigrants are looked upon today. During World War I, some of these pioneer brewers had all of their assets confiscated because of their German heritage. Talty commented: “You can never be American enough if you are a newcomer.”
I came across another example when doing the research for my current History of Radio series of blog posts. The surface narrative about the history of radio starts with Marconi and goes through the U.S. Navy, RCA, David Sarnoff and the broadcast networks. But I came across at least a couple authors who dismissed that and talked about the real pioneers of radio, guys who set up in their garage with soup cans and tin fuel.
We also look to history to provide what Washington refers to as the “foundation of truth” for our society. History is written for people today, not the people who lived at the time that the story is about. That is why, as Montclair State University Professor Leslie Wilson commented, historians raise questions like “were the founding fathers really great thinkers?”
One of my favorite types of history that I think addresses this issue of the stories that haven’t been told is oral history. It is first hand history in the words of the participants. I recently read a great example of oral history in the book “Second Hand Time, the Last of the Soviets,” by Svetlana Alexievich. Oral history is mostly written by interviewing older people who lived through a certain era. Alexievich’s book is about Russia during the transition from the USSR to the post-Soviet republic. The panelists today noted the potential for a far richer range of sources for future historians because of self-publishing, the internet, bloggers like myself and social media. Think about the narrative created by people on the street during the Arab Spring as it was recorded on Twitter. Surely that gives us the opportunity to hear from voices who in an earlier time would be left out of the story. And it might also give us an even bigger challenge when it comes to figuring out the truth.