Char Miller on James Loewen

What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong reviewed


LIES ACROSS AMERICA:What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong.

Fort Worth was not a military post for very long — established in 1849, it was shuttered in 1853. It was not a particularly tough tour of duty, either: although one of a string of forts erected throughout the state after the Mexican-American War to defend the nation’s expansionist claims to this contested terrain, its soldiers saw little action. As local historian Dr. Clay Perkins told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in early November: “The Indians mostly weren’t interested in fighting the Army. They were mostly going to South Texas and attacking travelers and taking horses from ranches.” But a number of the troops stationed at Fort Worth died nonetheless, from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and typhoid, from acute diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, and drowning. Records that Perkins unearthed at the National Archives also capture this inglorious demise: one inebriated soldier threw up and choked to death on his vomit.

Why should we recall this less than intoxicating moment in the state’s history (except as an arch rebuttal to western mythmakers)? Even if one wanted to recognize the role of this generation of soldiers in the early militarization of Texas, then those forts more central to the narration of conquest should be memorialized. But such arguments matter little, now that the former fort has a new set of (vocal) defenders. A move is afoot, organized by the Tarrant County Veterans Council, to erect a memorial to the fallen: eleven trees-one planted for each dead soldier — will form “an arc around a granite monument topped by a bronze statue of a soldier in a uniform of the 1849-53 era,” reported the Star-Telegram. The cost? A mere $30,000.

To raise that kind of cash, the Council fund-raisers are using “duty” as their hook, a pitch that has, they hope, contemporary relevance. “We want those who will serve our country in the future to know that 150 years from now, if they die in some remote place in some conflict like Kosovo, that they won’t be forgotten,” says Willard Thomas, vice president of the Council. It does not matter, then, how the Fort Worth Eleven died, but that they died in uniform. “We had better remember those soldiers. The young people will see how we treat those who served us.” Enhance the honor of our ancestors — however undistinguished or ignoble they may have been — so that our children will do the same for us. No wonder a nineteenth-century British cleric determined that “History is a pack of lies.”

That history’s packaging can be false will come as no surprise to historian James Loewen. This tangled tale linking together Fort Worth’s past and present, all forged of a desire by the living to reinvent the dead in its image, is disturbingly reminiscent of the many stories he narrates in his latest book, Lies Across America. Its famous predecessor, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995), savages the dangerous and silly errors laced throughout history textbooks. This new tome is perhaps even more ambitious because its target is so ubiquitous and scattered — the bewildering number of historical markers, monuments, museums, and sites that line our nation’s highways and byways.

Loewen’s goal is to debunk our cherished perceptions embedded within these historical emblems, and he does so on a state by state basis. That he wants to invert our reflexive understanding of the ordering of U.S. history is evident in the book’s intellectual structure: well aware of how Eastern-centric the telling of our past has long been — from Columbus to Jamestown to Plymouth, our national stories inevitably originate with the rising sun — Loewen begins where America’s day ends, the Far West. And he kicks off with an issue he just as easily could have told about the East (or anywhere else on this continent), the power of place names to communicate hegemonic authority. The tallest mountain in North America — Mount McKinley (née Denali) — now bears the name of a man who, at the time of its rechristening, had not yet ascended to the White House, was therefore not yet a martyr, and had never set foot in Alaska. Why then was an Ohio politician tapped for this high honor? Because many Alaskans opposed the gold standard that the Republican McKinley embraced, and William A. Dickey, who coined and publicized the new name, approved of the future president’s fiscal conservatism. “The original naming,” one commentator points out, “was little more than a joke.”

But it has had serious consequences. “Replacing Native American names with those of European Americans is a form of cultural imperialism,” Loewen remarks, a practice that “declares the new rulers of the landscape can afford to ignore what Native names mean and connote.” Doing so also provides a greater sense of control and ownership, much as “New England” ties that region to an old country thousands of miles away. Another form of imported ancestry — more distant by place and time — was the Greco-Roman craze that swept the Empire State in the post-Revolutionary era. Establishing towns such as Troy, Homer, Ithaca, Carthage, and Syracuse further distinguished these New York settlements from their former “owners,” whether indigenous or British. Renaming, so much a part of the westering impulse, is no longer officially sanctioned: in 1990, Loewen reports, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a strategy whereby priority would be given to names “derived from American Indian, Inuit, and Polynesian languages.” In time, Denali will be reborn.

Other habits will take longer to die. Like the deep resistance to acknowledging the sexual preferences of famous people whose public accomplishments warrant acclaim. Willa Cather, for one: in his account of her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska (a chapter wryly entitled, “No Lesbians on the Landscape”), Loewen searches its website and the 190 historical sites that make up the “Willa Cather Thematic District,” and interviews the director of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, to discover that nowhere is it mentioned that the novelist had long-standing relationships with women. In one sense this lacuna might not matter (“Knowing that Aaron Copland was gay does not contribute much to understanding or appreciating his music,” Loewen observes), but recent Cather scholarship suggests the same is not true for her literary output. Moreover, in a larger sense this absence matters a great deal: “If Americans knew that some of the historical figures the landscape celebrates were lesbian or gay, public discourse might improve” — a political consequence Loewen urges on. So does Martina Navratilova: “It is time that schools told the truth… so that young people will realize that those of us who have been lesbian and gay are part of America and always have been.” As central as inclusion is to Loewen’s revisionist agenda, so too is his demand for a greater openness about the degree to which conflict has defined political American history. Too often, for instance, we have denied the brutal battles that have been waged over working conditions and workers’ rights, one sign of which has been the consistent vandalizing of the monument extolling the Chicago police department’s violent role in suppressing the Haymarket demonstrations of May, 1886.

Another historic divide — the bitter legacy of slavery and racial politics — is much on display in Lies Across America. We learn that Richmond, Virginia, “one of the great centers of the slave trade,” does not contain “one historical marker or site alluding to the buying and selling of human beings.” At the many preserved Antebellum Southern mansions you’ll hear much about the extraordinary architecture, but precious little about the chattel who built these magnificent homes. (Loewen is particularly adept at picking up on docents’ use of the passive voice, what my mother calls “no-fault” verbs; he also spots a caption of a photograph of slave quarters that reconceives its occupants as “plantation house domestic workers prior to the Civil War.”) And then there is Stone Mountain, Georgia, on whose face is carved the massive likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis; it has long served as a sacred site for the KKK. Tiny Alba, Texas, also makes an appearance as one of the infamous “sundowner” towns of East Texas that forcibly excluded African Americans — and still does. (Blacks were warned, in some cases by posted signs, that they dare not remain in such towns after sunset.)

Seemingly more subtle forms of segregation defined northern attitudes, such as those prevalent in my hometown of Darien, Connecticut, the setting for Laura Z. Hopson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a shrewd depiction of genteel anti-Semitism; an equal opportunity discriminator, this bedroom community of New York City also excluded African Americans and Catholics, among other undesirables, through real estate covenants. More bluntly mocking was the University of Vermont’s eighty-year tradition called “Kake Walk.” This two-day minstrel show, on an (almost) all-white campus, included black-faced, kinky-wig wearing dancers and “pickaninny ushers.” It was halted, over protest, in 1969.

What would be the point of admitting to these troubling pasts? Why write them into our historical markers? Doing so will enable us to construct a “landscape of truth,” Loewen asserts, that once completed will allow us to explain “where we really have been as a nation and what we have done as a people.”

He is self-conscious enough to know that the demand for diversity contains its own cant, a trope that can muffle dissent as effectively as preceding generations have been able to do. So even while he claims that “[m]onuments and markers are messages to the future, and the future does not belong to the rich alone but to all of us,” he also recognizes just how quickly the new order can become the old. With a bow to George Santayana — “History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten” — Loewen concludes: “[s]o long as our society is in revision then, so long will its historic sites need revision.” A supposition like that just might free us to establish a marker on the Tarrant County site where, once upon a time, a defender of the Texas frontier got so blotto that he spewed, gagged, and died.

Contributing Writer Char Miller just completed a six-year term on the State Board of Review of the Texas Historical Commission.