History Hoydens

Example

Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 August 2009

In the U.S., we have a long-standing tradition of "history as argument" -- our history is rarely fixed, and instead is characterized by the ongoing back-and-forth arguments we have over The Truth.

It's been said that the victors write history. That may be true in the case of the American Civil War, after which many history books were modified to remove the contributions of the states that had seceded. The official school Jamestowntexts of my childhood made no mention of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the USA. Instead, I was taught that Plymoth Rock (founded a full 20 years later than the Jamestown settlement) owned that honor. (As a disclaimer of sorts, I was raised in a town barely north of the Mason Dixon line; perhaps the fighting had been particularly grim in that location).

Happy HippiesOthers say it's not the victors, but the misfits who have written much of our accepted history -- those on the fringes of society, who have nothing better to do than sit around and write commentaries on how those in power behave. This case is often made of the 1950s and 1960s in America, when the fringe elements of the Beats and the Hippies defined what "the Establishment" was doing, and painted the majority of society as conformists. The men and women who "conformed" -- who were quietly raising families, working jobs, and participating in society -- had little time or inclination to write commentaries on the times, or so the argument goes.

Historians debate how much attention to give to outliers (the "fringe" elements of an historical time). Often, the fringe elements are presented in as much detail as the majority elements, leading Colorful Hippiesto a somewhat skewed perspective. From some historical discussions of the late 1960s, for example, one might believe that 80% of the adults in the USA participated in the hippie movement. Perhaps this is a natural effect of the colorful and interesting photos we have of the hippie movement; photos of my staunchly conservative parents would not make for an exciting text book chapter.

One battle currently raging involves the history of the Japanese Internment during World War II, when over 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forced from their homes on the west coast of California into internment camps in the deserts of the interior United States. Their property and rights were stripped from them, and the popular historical perspective is that these detainees accepted their lot with passive resignation in a unified spirit of patriotic sacrifice. However, a significant number of these men not only fought relocation, they refused mandatory military service, choosing to serve years in prison rather than fight for the government that had betrayed them. Today, many Japanese-American groups are trying to suppress the actions of these men, believing them to be shameful and to tarnish the reputation of all Japanese-Americans. The argument is that the actions of a minority should not be written into the historical account, because they might outweigh the historical truth of the majority. But in my opinion, history should never be a zero-sum game.

For over a decade, a U.S. Civics textbook written by my late mother-in-law was the number one 9th grade civics text in the United States. She'd devoted much of her working life to evaluating teaching materials for societal and political biases, and worked tirelessly to ensure her text was even-handed and as free from such bias as possible. But she couldn't control everything, and one particular caption in a 1986 edition of the book bothered her greatly. In the section on Immigration and Naturalization, the editors included a photo of Albert Einstein taking the oath of U.S. citizenship.

Einstein

The caption in my mother-in-law's book read: "The world's most famous scientist, Albert Einstein, is sworn in as a new citizen of the United States." What the caption didn't say: the year was 1939, and Einstein, like many other Jews, had been driven out of Europe (in fact, I don't think I've ever seen him look sadder than he does in that photo). From the sanitized caption that was printed, many students were probably misled as I'd been misled about Plymoth Rock.

Given my woefully inaccurate historical education, I wonder if there are other "minority views" of history that I'm missing. And, if authors use minor details of history in their works, does it make the book less believable (because the details are not well-known) or does it add to the verisimilitude of the story? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

7 Comments:

Blogger Amanda said...

I happen to love hearing stories from the "minorities" throughout history. It adds to the depth of the stories and makes readers really think about what it was like for the people that lived through them, BOTH the winners and losers. I'm actually more intrigued to find out what happened for the losers after they lost the fight, rather than the fight itself. It's these untold stories that would make our history complete, if they weren't covered up or lost. And it's funny that you learned the first settlement was Plymouth Rock, as I learned the very first was Roanoke, the "Lost Colony", but since they were wiped out by disease and the Native Americans, Jamestown was the first colony that made it. Oh, and if you want a great book about the Japanese Internment read "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet". It's a historical fiction book about a first-love between a Japanese girl and a Chinese boy, and flashes between present day and her time in the camps.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Doreen! Like Amanda, I love hearing stories of "minorities" and those on the fringe of society in terms of thought and behavior. I think it's important to remember that there was a wide range of thoughts and actions in all eras, and that, or instance, even in the Victorian era "Victorian morality" wasn't pervasive.

I saw a play at the A.C.T. in San Francisco a few years ago about the Japanese after the war that dealt with the conflict between those who fought in the war and those who refused to serve a government that had turned on them. Just recently at a family dinner, my uncle was who grew up in Seattle, was talking about how in the middle of his senior year, a third of the class, who were Japanese, were suddenly gone.

I did learn about Jamestown in school and Roanoke, as well as Plymouth Rock.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

And it's funny that you learned the first settlement was Plymouth Rock, as I learned the very first was Roanoke, the "Lost Colony", but since they were wiped out by disease and the Native Americans, Jamestown was the first colony that made it.

I learned the same thing as the other Amanda.

And although I went to a very progressive private school in NYC where many of the texts we used in class were not "textbooks" per se, and where many of the students happened to be Jewish (though thoroughly assimilated ones; The Fieldston School could not have been any farther from a parochial school if it tried!!) I still don't recall learning specifically about the Japanese internment camps, or the Holocaust (though I know I learned about them somewhere before I graduated high school ... I just don't remember the context).

The "Minority" experience throughout history is as fascinating, yet it IS history itself, as valid as everyone else's perspective or participation in events. I tend to cringe at the notion that "minority" history it needs to be segregated, Balkanized, or otherwise ghetto-ized from the rest of history. Womens' studies, African-American history, Jewish-American and Native-American studies --- I can't wait until all relevant perspectives on an event, whether it's WWII or the founding of American colonies are taught within the same course.

Hopping off my soapbox now ...

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Maryan said...

"What the caption didn't say: the year was 1939, and Einstein, like many other Jews, had been driven out of Europe . . . ."

Nor does it reflect that the US openly and vehemently rejected granting asylum to thousands of Jewish refugees expelled from Europe. The most famous is perhaps the "St. Louis," carrying nearly 1000 refugees, which was denied docking permits and entry in 1939.

I don’t know that I’d use the term “minority views” because there’s more to US history than that--and more than simply written by the victors. The US has a powerful mythology and ideology all wound up in that liberty, freedom, equality rhetoric. Trace it back to John Winthrop and Boston as his “citty upon a hill”; perpetuated and inflated by Jefferson et al. (Talk about soapboxes . . . .) We USers recognize only what fulfills our mythos and disregard any negatives, regardless of “the Truth.”

If y’all want a really different perspective on the settling of North America, consider the whole thing from the perspective of the American Indians. Stand the world on its head! And that Jamestown/Plimoth stuff? Not really so special. The Spanish (St Augustine, Santa Fe) and French (Montreal, New Orleans) were here earlier than the Dutch, Swedes or LASTLY, the Anglos.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I had no idea about the Italians who were also interned during WWII if it hadn't been for one of Lisa Scottoline's mystery novels. As for the women's studies, etc. I think there was and still is a place for them in history departments. Particularly since women and minorities are still marginalized.History is so complex that sometimes it is hard to contain it within a single class. We never managed to make it to WWI in my history classes in school because there was so much to cover. Thank god for MASH or I might not have known there was a Korean conflict!

9:15 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

So it's not hard to understand why so much of American opinion centers on "bringing democracy to the Middle East." Sheesh! Up until recently, the "western" picture of the Middle East has been extremely skewed. Whoever is writing history sees it in his own image.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Helaina Hinson said...

To hear people talk today, every man who fought in the Confederate Army was a rich white slaveowning racist.

The oft-ignored facts: less than ten percent of Confederate soldiers ever owned a slave. Thousands of American Indians fought for the south, including the first Indian general, Cherokee chief Stand Watie. Thousands of Hispanics served from Texas, and an entire company of a Louisiana regiment was made up of Filipinos and Chinese immigrants.

Most ignored were the black Confederates, who are dismissed by PC historians as servants, or slaves who were being forced to fight against their will. This ignores such men as Dick Poplar of the Virginia Cavalry (who is still honored every year in a memorial service at his grave in Petersburg). The 37th Texas had a black officer, Sgt. James Washington. And that's just a few.

And then there are the hundreds of women who served. Pick up a copy of "Hearts of Fire: Soldier Women in the Civil War" by Lee Middleton, or "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War" by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook.

5:27 PM  

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