Reflections on Conservatives Doing Public History

After skimming the titles of the required posts for this week, I landed on Klugewicz’s article, “Hungry Souls and Brave Hearts: Heroism, History and Myth,” and I thought it would be an interesting read. In studying the history of the American West, I have learned to acknowledge the challenges of reconciling the dichotomy of the region’s actual history with that of the “Imagined West” (which is characterized as paternalistic, individualistic, timeless and placeless etc.). I figured that this article would promote a similar approach and would encourage readers to question their perceptions of the past, especially those perceptions clouded in myth. I thought the author would be reiterating the importance of recognizing the convoluted relationship between the history and myth. I was so wrong.

How can anyone seriously advocate telling “history as a great myth?” This approach creates so many problems, and I think this is why students dislike history to the extent that they do. They have grown up with a mythic understanding of the past, and at some point in their academic careers they are introduced to a less exaggerated, less epic, uglier version of the past, and I think they feel cheated. Why would they be interested in studying something that in no way resembles what they thought they knew about history? At this point, it is easier for them to disregard a truthful interpretation of the past and stick with the version of history that Hollywood created.

Western American historian Richard White provides a thorough explanation of the role that the “imagined West” plays in Western American history. While White acknowledges that it is difficult to separate the mythic West from the historic West, he recognizes that the two do need to be identified as distinct entities, both capable of providing insight into the past. But this insight is only visible when both versions are made available. While this is rather a long explanation, I think it is so well written and phrased. To not include it in this post would be most unfortunate.

Richard White writes, “Myth means falsehood; however in a second, deeper sense, myths are not so much falsehoods as explanations. Mythmakers draw from history: they use real people or actual incidents. They have no compunctions, however, about changing details, adding characters, and generally rearranging events in order to make the meaning of their stories clearer. Historians also draw from history, and they, too, are selective. Historians necessarily select from among numerous available facts in order to create a story about the past. Historians, by the code of their discipline, put great store in facts, but facts are rarely at the heart of historical disputes. Instead, historians argue over the relationships between largely agreed upon fact, for it is the relationship between facts that differentiates one historian’s story from another historian’s story. Historians and mythmakers thus both seek to order the past in a way that conveys meaning. Both tell stories. But, historians, also by the code of their craft, cannot reorder facts or invent new one. Historians are thus more cramped and constricted than mythmakers in their attempts to explain what the past means.”

“If we differentiate history from myth solely on the basis of facts, we will, however, run into conceptual difficulties over what a fact is, and more significantly, miss a larger difference. For a good historian, as the cliche goes, the past is another country. People in the past operate in a different context than we in the present. Any lessons the past teaches are those about processes and change. Myth, for all its attention to the past, denies this and thus denies “history” itself. Myth refuses to see the past as fundamentally different from the present. In myth, time brings no essential change. The past and the present are not only connected, they are also metaphorically identical. Myth rips events out of context and drains them of their historicity. How a cowboy acts in a myth is how an American male should act regardless of time or place. A man has to do what a man has to do. Myths thus are antihistory, for history above all depends on context.” (White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, 615-616.)

Aside from the lunacy of Klugewicz’s support of myths as an acceptable form teaching the past, he has the audacity to further explain his asinine approach. He writes, “We understand that though good and evil most definitely exist, men themselves are neither black nor white but rather some shade of gray.” Teaching history as a myth creates a justification for ignoring these gray areas. In the classic “Western” movies of the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Hollywood’s reign on Western American history, directors and screenwriters depicted Cowboys and Indians as the poster children for the quintessential Western myth. It was apparent that film makers expected audiences to aspire to be John Wayne and grow to despise the “uncivilized, dangerous, and savage” Indians. The plot of good versus evil is about as black and white as it gets; and in this story there is no room for grey. Audiences are supposed to ignore the realities behind these stories; realities of natives being killed, marginalized, and herded onto reservations; among other realities about the region. History tells us that living in the American West was not an easy feat, nor was it as fun as Hollywood pretends. All of these nuances stories disappear when the only version of history that is made available is the myth. I cannot even believe that Klugewicz would be advocating that we teach kids history this way without at least providing (and thoroughly explaining) that there is another version of the story that is a more truthful portrayal of the past!

 It is also an utter shame that at the end of the post, Klugewicz writes, “Scholars must compose sweeping narratives of the past that will appeal to a general audience…. And, finally, let us not forget to include humor in telling the story of America to the young, which will help to avoid boring them. Kids like people who can be funny.” It is people like Klugewicz, who advocate using backwards methods to teach history thus disgracing the discipline, who make good historians and scholars shy away from using humor and engaging narrative. When Klugewicz supports an approach to providing historical knowledge that completely disregards, in the words of Richard White, the “code of the discipline,” no one is going to side with him when it comes to writing techniques and style. He should have stopped while he was …behind, and left giving useful advice to the historians who are credible and know what they are talking about!

And on a side note, I think the emphasis on African American history, as seen through this week’s articles, stems from the fact that many of the nation’s conservatives and liberals involved with politics are based on the East Coast. There is less of an emphasis on the West and the West’s role in American history simply because of the legacy of the geographic bubble where these people live and work. In the East, the turning point in American history was the Civil War and all comes with that (slavery v. state’s rights, discrimination etc.). They need to take a lesson from Frederick Jackson Turner and recognize that the importance of the history of the American West in the larger narrative of American history. I think that would result in more discussions on broader topics from both liberals and conservatives alike.

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