Saturday, July 01, 2017

History or Mythstory?

Okay, you members of the Philologist Police. Admonish me for using a word that does not appear in the dictionary. But think about it––when discussing historical myths, doesn’t it make sense to consolidate the two words “history” and “myth” into one, thus providing a single word that captures the essence of the thought? Why not?

“History is a science, not just a grouping of facts. The word history itself comes from Greek ἱστορία, historia, meaning ‘inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation.’ Like any other science, history can be and has been distorted, and that’s where myths enter the picture. A myth is defined as ‘an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.’ (The more modern version of a false collective belief, advocated by some at high political levels, is now termed “alternative facts.)”

It Just Ain’t So

As an indication of the fragility and vulnerability of the term “History” as well as the meaning of the word, here is a quote that is relevant: “History is only a fable, which people consider as true.” (That citation is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte). Here is the Kronish version of that statement: “Historical facts you think you know, undoubtedly are just ain’t so.”

Another famous quote about History maintains, “History is written by the victors” (That has been misattributed by some to Winston Churchill while its origin is unknown). A more accurate quote not yet invented could be “History is rewritten by the poets.” How can that be? Here is a notable example:

The Great Distorter

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is recognized as one of America’s most illustrious poets. Unfortunately, he has more recently been revealed as one of America’s most notable distorters of American history. US News writes the following: “‘Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.’ With those words, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in a poem published in 1861, galloped away with the legend of the Boston silversmith who helped start the Revolutionary War. Longfellow's poem, with its romantic image of a lonely rider single-handedly stirring a sleeping countryside to arms, was written more than 40 years after Revere's death for readers facing the specter of another looming conflict [the Civil War]. But its simple, inspiring message still resonates: One man, in pursuit of a noble cause, really can make a difference.”

From Dana Gioia, in an essay for Poetry for Students: “Published a few months before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter initiated America’s bloodiest war, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ was Longfellow’s reminder to New Englanders of the courage their ancestors demonstrated in forming the Union. Another ‘hour of darkness and peril and need,’ the poem’s closing lines implicitly warn, now draws near. The author’s intentions were overtly political–to build public resolve to fight slavery and protect the Union–but he embodied his message in a poem compellingly told in purely narrative terms. Longfellow’s ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ was so successful that modern readers no longer remember it as a poem but as a national legend. Underneath the myth, however, a fine poem waits to be rediscovered.”

US News writes: “The poem has only one flaw, historians say: It is inaccurate in almost every way. ‘We have heard of poetic license,’ wrote the town historian of Lexington, Mass., in 1868, ‘but have always understood that this sort of latitude was to be confined to modes of expression and to the regions of the imagination, and should not extend to historic facts.’ By abandoning the real story of Paul Revere from beginning to end, Longfellow may have undermined his own message. ‘He appealed to the evidence of history as a source of patriotic inspiration,’ writes David Hackett Fischer in Paul Revere's Ride, ‘but was utterly without scruple in his manipulation of historical fact.’”

Errors Aplenty

The Paul Revere Heritage Project describes Longfellow’s many misrepresentations as follows: “The sole credit for the success of the ride was given to Revere only, but he did not ride alone; Revere was accompanied by two other riders, Williams Dawes and Samuel Prescott. All the events described in the poem occurred on the night of April 18, 1775; the poem distorted the occurrence of events. The planning of the signals ‘one, if by land, two, if by sea’ happened on April 16th, two days before the actual ride.

“The signal in the North Church ‘One, if by land, and two, if by sea’ was not meant for him. The signal was from him to the Patriots.” He did not climb the tower of the Old North Church. “Two days before the Midnight Ride he went to Charlestown and met Colonel Conant with whom he set up the plan to place the lanterns that would signal what route the British were taking.”

Revere did not ride triumphantly into Concord. “He rode to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock but never made it further to Concord because he was captured but soon released by the British soldiers. Another messenger Dr. Samuel Prescott, rode from Lexington to Concord to warn the residents. His ride through the night was not enjoyable and uneventful; he was captured and interrogated by the British and then let go.”

Paul Revere did not gain immediate fame for his April 1775 “Midnight Ride.” In fact, it wasn't until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1861 poem, which greatly embellished Revere's role, that he became the folk hero we think of today. In the 86 years prior to the publication of Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere was famous primarily for his silversmith skills. Very few today know he was also recognized as a dentist, fabricating false teeth from ivory, wiring them into his patient’s mouth. However, contrary to popular legend, Revere did not fashion a set of wooden dentures for George Washington. Had it been better known, Revere might have become a legend for his romantic prowess since some sources maintain he fathered eight children with his first wife, and another eight with his second). That too is false; he actually fathered (only) six.

The Objective

What was the true purpose of Longfellow’s poem that led him to hyperbolize it to the point that it actually misrepresented so much of the authoritative action? The following headline in December 2010 in The New York Times tells the story: “Paul Revere’s Ride Against Slavery.” The author, Jill Lepore is an American History professor at Harvard. She writes, Longfellow was a passionate abolitionist. Longfellow went so far as to publish a book entitled “Poems on Slavery,” and used proceeds from his poetry to buy freedom for slaves. Lepore argues that “Paul Revere’s Ride,” written on the brink of secession and civil war, is more a call to arms against contemporary injustices than an attempt to commemorate a historic moment.

Lepore maintains, “Before Longfellow published those lines, Revere was never known for his ride, and Longfellow got almost every detail of what happened in 1775 wrong. But Longfellow didn’t care: he was writing as much about the coming war as about the one that had come before. ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ is less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War — and about the conflict over slavery that caused it. That meaning, though, has been almost entirely forgotten.”

Mythistory Triumphs

The Paul Revere Heritage Project writes the following: “During most of the nineteenth century Longfellow’s poem was considered a historical account and evidence of what happened the night of April 18, 1775 and many textbooks were written based on Longfellow’s poem. During the 20th century textbook writers and historians tried to portray a more objective account of the facts. They argued about the inaccuracies of the poet’s account and what were the real events, they tried to demythologize the poem. Nevertheless, Longfellow's poem has become so successful and ingrained in every American mind that readers no longer remember it as a poem but as a national legend. It is a reminder of the patriotism that led to independence and a part of the American culture.”

I don’t know if you will agree with me, but in my time in public school in the 20th century, I have no recollection of ever reading a textbook that “portrayed a more objective accounts of the facts.” Admittedly, so ingrained was I in the “mythhistory” of the Paul Revere fable, my ignorance extended to my lack of knowledge related to Longfellow’s stance as an abolitionist.

There are many more instances of early American history being mythisized. Perhaps we will review some of them in the near future. My thanks to Dr. Dan Fishkoff for suggesting this subject.


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