Monday, April 20, 2009

Controlling the past

Today is observed as Patriots' Day in Massachusetts and, of course, this morning the ride of Paul Revere was reenacted along the course of the original route from Boston to Lexington.

Just last week, at Rodney's Bookstore in Central Square, Cambridge, I came across a used copy of "Founding Myths," a book that looks back at about a dozen stories from the Revolutionary War period, attempting to find the truth among the glorified tales that most of us learned in school.

Turns out that Revere himself wrote an account of the ride not long after it happened, but the story told in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem is what made its way into history textbooks. As you might expect, the truth is always messier, but it doesn't make for easy-to-remember history.

About a decade ago I read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and was astonished to find out that when the Pilgrims arrived they set up what became Plymouth on the site of an abandoned Native American village. And then they meet Squanto, who had already been to Europe three times by 1620! He spoke English and served as a translator between the English and the natives. Squanto's story is amazing: He'd been kidnapped in 1605 by an English sailor and had tried since to make his way back to his village, Patuxet. After several attempts he arrived to find that all his people had been killed by disease and that the Pilgrims were living on the land. It was disappointing to me that several important aspects of the story had been left out when I'd learned it in school.

Since then I've also read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," which provides another view of events that differs from the mythology that we're all taught. I generally find history fascinating and I try to learn as much as I can, but I keep in mind George Orwell's words from the book "1984": "He who controls the present, controls the past."


N.starluna said...

Have you been watching the new American Experience series on Native Americans? We saw one episode last night that focused on Tecumsah. Very interesting.

I am always curious about how accurate the portrayal of the native groups is in these documentaries. I am more familiar with the Southwest native groups and I'm always suspicious that the native peoples are made to look a certain way to make them appear more alien than they actually looked at the time.

Jim said...

I saw the first episode last week and most of last night's. Episode 1, "After the Mayflower," was directed by a Native American, and the entire series has input from various Native groups.