Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 4-5, 2011: Common Knowledge

Robert Penn Warren famously called history “the big myth we live,” and while of course his full views on the subject were significantly more complex than that, I think it’s entirely fair to say that a great deal of our (and probably any nation’s) historical narratives are mythic in one way or another (and often many ways). Or, more exactly, that the most succinct and thus remembered versions of our histories are mythic—1492 and the ocean blue, the city on a hill, George Washington and the cherry tree, Honest Abe, and on down the line. Obviously (if you’ve read this blog before, met me, know of me, etc) I don’t think those myths are sufficient, and in fact think that they often serve to oversimplify and elide the more significant of our histories. But on the other hand, it’s fair to say that they can in a better case serve as starting points, ways to get people—especially young people—engaged with some interesting and compelling national narratives, about which they might then want to find out more.
To that end, I don’t have a particular problem with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1861), beyond a doubt one of the most explicitly myth-making (and enduring) works of American historical literature. Longfellow makes no secret of his desire to create such an enduring myth, aiming his poem in its famous opening lines directly at an audience of children, and even more exactly children who have been born in and after an era when “hardly a man is now alive” who remembers Revere and the Revolution. That’s not to say that Longfellow wasn’t interested in creating a historically accurate text, and it’s fair to say that he gets a good bit about the ride right (although he entirely leaves out Revere’s counterpart William Dawes). But the poem’s point, right down to its sing-song rhythm and easily remembered (and memorized) rhymes, is precisely to last, to lodge itself in a nation’s consciousness and so make sure that its significant focal point will likewise endure. Certainly any analysis of the poem would need to include the timing and location of its publication—in January 1861, with sectional division and secession enflaming the nation, to publish a poem that celebrates one of America’s most unifying mythic figures in one of the most prominent national publications (The Atlantic Monthly) seems unquestionably to have present and political as well as historical and memorial aims. Yet to me there’s no doubt that Longfellow was aiming most fully for the long-term; and even less doubt that he succeeded.
As I noted, however, such mythic versions of our history are only productive if they inspire continued thought and engagement, an audience who will not simply memorize and repeat the myth. And that’s particularly true because there are a great many pseudo-historians who will always seek (whether through ignorance, ill intention, or some combination of both) to create new and even less complex or accurate versions of the myths, to serve their own contemporary purposes. One of the very last things I wish for this blog is for it to become focused in any central way on the likes of Sarah Palin, but once again Palin has ventured into the realm of American history, this time with her nonsensical and false version of Paul Revere (one centered on his desire to warn the British as well as the Revolutions, the former warning according to Palin in order to help the colonists keep their guns). As before, it’s not really possible for me to care less about what Palin does with or to our historical narratives—but as the attempted Wikipedia edits documented in the second link indicate, many of Palin’s supporters have already begun repeating her false myths, and, even more significantly, attempting to make them profoundly communal and thus ultimately accepted and carried forward (since, whether we like it or not, Wikipedia is now one of the most prominent places where our common myths and stories, our common knowledge, reside).
So what’s the answer, the best path to myths that we can truly live with? Listen, my children, and you shall hear: get interested in the stories in whatever way works, but don’t stop there—read and learn a lot more (Esther Forbes’ Pulitzer-winning biography of Revere is one good place to start), get way behind and beyond the myth, and figure out what you want to make of these common, communal, and crucial American stories. And oh yeah, please don’t listen to Sarah Palin. More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      Longfellow’s poem:
4)      OPEN: What do you think?

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