…when I wax snobbish and say that history should be left to professional historians. My wife brought this article in HuffPo to my attention just a little while ago. It’s not so much the minor errors that bug me (nobody “renamed” Steuben’s regulations; Ben Franklin barely lifted a finger to help Steuben, because his much-less-famous colleague Silas Deane was the one who pushed for Steuben’s advancement in the Continental Army); it’s not just the tried-and-true-but-nonetheless-wrong “factoids” about Steuben that have been made “true” by constant repetition (e.g., “he actually wasn’t even a real Baron” — yes he most certainly was — he had been awarded, legitimately, the title Freiherr, and as any German immersing himself in the Anglophone world, he translated his title into French…hence “Baron”). Those are really minor errors, and as far as I know my book (Drillmaster of Valley Forge) is the only work that refutes them. Nor is it all that shocking to a person of my political leanings that Steuben might have been gay. What bothers me is the use of historical figures in current political/social debates in which they have little place. Was Steuben gay? Was “gay,” as we understand it today, even a concept in the eighteenth century? Did Steuben have one or more homosexual encounters? Is that enough to consider him gay? Was he bisexual? Was he asexual?
Having been — as far as I know — the only historian to have gone through Steuben’s papers (and the correspondence of others about Steuben) at any length since John McAuley Palmer wrote his biography of Steuben back in the 1930s, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the jury is out on all those questions. We just don’t know. I’ve been through this material and I have yet to find a single instance (no offense intended to the author of this article) in which anyone referred to Steuben as a “sodomite.” He was likely accused of pederasty while still in Europe, before his coming to America in 1777-78, but further details have been lost to time. Was he close with his aides? Certainly. Was he their lover? Who the hell knows. There’s simply no evidence one way or t’other, and excerpts from Steuben’s correspondence to his aides — which make frequent reference to his “love” for his friends — reveals nothing out of the ordinary for written correspondence between men in the late eighteenth century. There’s at least equal evidence to suggest that he had a romantic tie with at least one close female friend during his life in Europe. So what does that mean? Heterosexual? Bi?
But this has all been left out of “the history books,” hasn’t it? Surely Americans would be ashamed to know that one of the key figures in American military success in the Revolution might have been — gasp — gay? Undoubtedly there are those who would feel somehow offended by this revelation…but a surprise? No, not hardly. Every now and again there’s an article, or a chapter, or an encyclopedia entry that includes Steuben in the list of famous gay men in American history. Google it and see for yourself. So, no, no real shock at all.
What am I trying to say here? I’m not sure entirely. I guess what I want to convey is that…what difference does it make? Who the hell cares? We can’t say anything definitive about Steuben’s sexual orientation or his romantic life. It may be — and this is what I suggested in Drillmaster — that Steuben was so tightly-wound inside that he found it impossible to have a truly intimate relationship with anybody. Of course it shouldn’t make any difference, and there’s far too many people out there for whom it would make a difference. I find that sad. But it does no one any good to warp history to suit current political debates.
Shameless plug: buy Drillmaster of Valley Forge and judge for yourself!
You’d think that I’d be able to take a joke by now. One of the reasons I chose history as my profession was – frankly – that it’s funny. Bleak, yes, depressing, yes, but hilarious all the same, provided that you have a sense of humor that can countenance the truly awful. Unfortunately, try as I might, my sense of humor doesn’t extend quite so far as I’d like. I still can’t abide glaring, easily avoided, senseless errors on film or TV. Or poorly worded history. That’s why, for a good long while, I stopped watching The History Channel (and this was long before it became populated with pawn-shop owners and antique pickers). I remember a little factoid inserted with commercial breaks on THC years ago, that boldly proclaimed an interesting little historical tidbit: “Did you know…that Queen Elizabeth I relied on sixteenth-century astrologers when making important decisions?” Or something very much like that. What I clearly remember was the emphasis on “sixteenth-century,” as if it was the age of said astrologers that made this fact interesting, rather than that a European sovereign would take astrology into account when making decisions. I observed to my wife at the time that I didn’t find anything especially interesting about that. If, on the other hand, Elizabeth I had relied on thirteenth-century astrologers, or twentieth-century astrologers…well, then that would have been interesting. Maybe even a little disturbing. My wife didn’t find my observation very funny. After a while, neither did I. I should have been able to laugh at the ten-second spot on The History Channel, but I couldn’t. It just annoyed me.
I’m sure a great many of us can point to several – maybe dozens, maybe hundreds – of errors in period films – matters of material culture, perhaps, or chronology, or both. And I suspect that many of us, sometimes, get so annoyed by these errors that we find it hard to enjoy period films. I managed to make it through Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998, starring Cate Blanchett), despite everything that was wrong with it…though I couldn’t get past the fact that Cecil (played by Richard Attenborough) appeared as an old man, and that Elizabeth inexplicably fired him at the film’s end (in 1572???). But I couldn’t make myself watch more than a few minutes of Kapur’s 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Once Swedish ambassadors appeared in Elizabeth’s court – purportedly in 1585 – to seek the queen’s hand in marriage for their master, Erik XIV, I just couldn’t bring myself to warch any more. You see, Erik XIV was deposed in 1568 – seventeen years before the scene in question – and died in 1577.
Again, I should have just laughed this off and moved on, the way one laughs off bad acting, incongruous writing, and horrible special effects in a movie like Plan Nine from Outer Space. But I couldn’t. It’s history, after all.
I have the same problem with jokes. Not all jokes. Just the kind that are based on history—the kind that give the uninformed listener the impression that this is sophisticated humor, because it’s based in erudition. Jokes that have the appearance of cultivation and learning because they are not coarse and because they make reference to some shared assumptions about history that, presumably, all educated people have. Like these ones…
I just got this from a member of my family. The source? Some forwarded email. Doesn’t really matter where it came from. It purports to be something written by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame, to all you young’uns). I have no idea if Mr. Cleese actually wrote it or not, but the alleged authorship helps to set the tone. No matter how silly Monty Python humor got, it never devolved to the purely sophomoric potty humor of Benny Hill, always ending with somebody chasing somebody else in fast motion to the tune of “Yakety Sax.” But with Monty Python it was different. You always had the impression, when you watched Monty Python, that these were jokes and skits written by truly learned people. At least I did, when I was thirteen and watching the Flying Circus for the first time.
In this case, it’s a series of jokes about how various European nations have responded to security concerns raised by heightened tensions in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. It’s “national stereotype” humor – possibly one of the least sophisticated varieties of humor – and most of them are predictable. The English are stuffy and tend to understate things. The Scots are prone to anger and belligerence. Germans can be arrogant and militaristic. Et cetera, et cetera. Nothing new to see here, folks.
But national stereotypes (and all stereotypes, for that matter) – though I would argue that they’re really not all that funny – only work in humor if there’s some measure of truth in them, if those stereotypes indeed involve an exaggeration of truth.
So here we get to the French again. Here’s what it says: “The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country’s military capability.”
OK, quasi funny at best. Very very clever. But it’s not based on anything in reality that would make the stereotype work. [See my earlier posts on misguided popular notions of alleged French maladroitness in warfare here and here.] The French surrendered once, and some French citizens collaborated once…only in World War II. Only in World War II. No other European state – no other state in the Western world, not even the United States – can claim the kind of record of military success that France has. It wasn’t all that long ago that the US military in fact sought to emulate the French, and there were many reasons for doing so.
I’ve probably harped on this point enough, though I doubt that it will ever change anything. To most Americans the French will always be those snobs who look down their noses at us though we saved them – so the story goes – in both world wars, but who are themselves incapable of fighting a war. I’ve run into more than a few American soldiers who saw the French in action in Somalia in the early ’90s, and they knew what the French were capable of. Most important, the French have history on their side, so to speak.
There’s another one. This one, inexplicably, is about Spain. Not usually the butt of European stereotype jokes. Here it is: “The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.”
Again, clever clever, ha ha ha. Glass-bottomed submarines…really good look at the old Spanish navy. But what in the hell is this referring to? Is there any particular reason that the Spanish navy is worthy of ridicule? Does it stand out, historically, as being any better or worse than most European navies? Is this an English reference to the 1588 Armada? Maybe someone could fill me in here. It sounds suspiciously like an old-school Polish joke sans any reference to the old Polish fleet using screen doors on their submarines. Yes, I know, it’s just a joke…but it’s a joke that’s supposed to be rooted in some historical episode/truth – and the Spanish navy has no particularly negative historical reputation. But it sounds so erudite…it must relate to something.
Years ago (I’m pretty sure it was 1997), Saturday Night Live did a skit about a (fictional, obviously) vaudeville duo (one of them was Nathan Lane) whose specialty was crude ethnic humor. Eventually they got to the French, and the song was just, well, brilliant. “I eat babies! I drink pee! We must be French, French, French!” Immediately afterward, another actor offered commentary on the piece: “They really didn’t know much about the French.”
When I read that forwarded email, that old SNL skit was the first thing that popped into my mind.
Thanks to Derek Beck for a very kind review of Whites of Their Eyes.
Just had to post this — a favorite topic from my geekish adolescent past (Confederate ironclads were one of my favorite topics — especially the genuinely crappy ones, like CSS Georgia).
Sorry for the prolonged silence, folks. Hard at work on next book idea … soon. In the meantime, especially for Thirty Years’ War buffs, this is definitely worth a look. The full-text German version is even better.
Back again soon — PL
Sorry for the prolonged silence. I had hoped to follow up the previous posts much more quickly, but life — in this case the needs of my aging parents — took precedence. More coming. I’ve had it all bottled up inside for the past couple of weeks. Look for more very soon. In the meantime, as I was sayin’…
So…American readers prefer American history. And they prefer stories with which they’re already familiar, characters to whom they’ve already been introduced if only briefly. The American reading public, such as it is, isn’t necessarily moved to read or buy books about new or different things. Big surprise. Once you get over the whole “I can’t believe that that many people would actually fork over the money for Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington [“George Washington as you’ve never seen him!” Indeed!] when there are so many less objectionable alternatives available outrage, then our collective reading tastes are not all that shocking.
What may be shocking – okay, not shocking, more like “unexpected” perhaps – is that academic historians have their comfort-zones too, their own range of the familiar, the acceptable, the preferable. The boundaries of those comfort-zones aren’t exactly the same as those of the general reading public but they’re there all the same, and in many cases they’re no more rational or defensible. These prejudices come in all flavors: geographical, chronological, topical, methodological. Sometimes they’re prompted by broad trends in the profession (witness, for example, the overwhelming popularity – among academic historians, that is – of social history since the Sixties); sometimes they’re prompted by short-term methodological fads. Just look at the program for a major national or international conference, like the American Historical Association, and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes those comfort-zones reflect current political or economic realities. In history departments across the USA, Asian and African histories are hot – while medieval or early modern Europe is distinctly less so.
In part, that’s because some historical fields simply draw more budding scholars than others, just as some topics attract more enthusiasts outside the profession. American readers are drawn to the Civil War; so are many would-be historians in Ph.D. programs. The same goes for World War II. The Third Reich. Victorian Britain. Tudor England. The American Revolution. Military history in general.
And, conversely, there are fields in history that don’t inspire much interest at all. They may be interesting – I hold that any field in history is interesting if approached the right way – but students, like readers, aren’t drawn to them. It doesn’t help that – for many of the more arcane topics – there are few if any specialists representing these fields in history departments…which in itself is a reflection that these areas don’t inspire enthusiasm.
I know, because for most of my professional career I’ve worked in such a field: Scandinavian history, specifically Danish history. Very interesting to Danes, as one might expect, and to Scandinavians. Not so much to Europeans outside of Scandinavia. Very little to Americans. For me, it’s been a genuinely lonely experience. It’s one of the reasons – unconsciously taking a page from the late, great Henry Steele Commager, though I can’t pretend to Commager’s erudition or prolificacy – that I have largely abandoned Danish history for American. Although there’s something to be said for carving out your own little niche, after a while one feels as if one were pleading plaintively to be heard, trying in vain to convince the academy that your chosen field is worthy of study. From the moment that I first read C.V. Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War when I was twenty-one (incidentally, still my favorite narrative on the war), I knew that Denmark and the lands ruled by the Oldenburg kings together made up one of Europe’s great regional powers, and that in the political calculus of the early seventeenth century Denmark played a bigger role in international affairs than did, say, the England of James I. I knew that, at the height of its power, Denmark had one of the largest and most technically proficient fleets in European waters, that the kingdom controlled the Baltic trade on which England and the Netherlands depended, that the king of Denmark was the wealthiest sovereign in all of Europe, that he ruled over a state that in sheer territorial extent eclipsed everything else on the Continent save Habsburg Spain. I wanted to secure for Denmark – and Norway and Iceland – a place in the narrative, the way that the late Michael Roberts had done, or almost done, for Vasa Sweden.
And in that aspiration I would be terribly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely alone. There was, and is, a small community of scholars – in North America and in the Anglophone world in general – who have dedicated themselves to the study of Scandinavian history. But it’s not, or at least hasn’t been, enough to change the established narrative of European history. Twenty years ago, Scandinavia was all but invisible in the more popular Western Civ textbooks employed in college survey courses in the States. Sure, a few events or personages from Scandinavian history would put in an appearance. Gustavus Adolphus. The “Danish” and “Swedish” “phases” of the Thirty Years’ War. Maybe Charles XII (and then only as a foil to Peter the Great). Tycho Brahe. Søren Kierkegaard. Niels Bohr. And that would be about it. But it hasn’t changed in the years since, despite all of the very good material on Scandinavian history to appear in English. The Protestant Reformations in Scandinavia have earned, at best, two sentences in the same Western Civ textbooks that give a couple of full pages to the Reformation in Scotland. Does that mean that the Protestant Reformation in Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Finland was somehow less important than that in Scotland? No. It just means that that’s what the textbook authors knew, that’s the course that’s dictated to them by the prevailing narrative.
That’s only one example. It just happens to be one that I know really well. But it raises a larger question, one that goes way beyond the narrow confines of the history of a single region: why do certain topics, geographically-defined or otherwise, fade from view? Why do we, as historians, push them to the side and ignore them? I think for Denmark, for Scandinavia, and for any region or polity that has dropped by the wayside, the answer isn’t all that obscure. It’s mostly a matter of teleology – meaning, here, that we (academic historians as much as the general public) have a hard time separating ourselves from the present and taking the past on its own merits. We tend to focus on what’s been important in the past couple of generations and not on the more distant past. Ever notice, around the time of the dawn of the millennium (meaning the fake one in 2000, not the real one in 2001), that every cable TV documentary about the “one hundred most important people of the millennium” always included John F. Kennedy near the top? Nothing against JFK, but can we really say that there are not a hundred people in the past thousand years who might deserve the sobriquet “important” more than he?
We tend to think about history from the standpoint of the near-present; history – or, rather, historians, for a narrative can’t exist without authors to shape it – also tends to reward winners. It’s an old aphorism, of course, but there’s much truth in it. To quote Robert Frost’s excellent book on conflict in the early modern Baltic world: “History, it is often suggested, is written by the winners. Yet losers also write history; they just don’t get translated.” Frost was referring mainly to Poland, once one of the most important, most sophisticated, wealthiest states in Europe, and until fairly recently all but ignored by historians outside of the Baltic, but the sentiment could be applied almost universally. In early modern Europe, for example, it goes a long way towards explaining the virtual exclusion of Habsburg Spain from the established narrative. Anglophone historians all but ignored Spain until the 1970s. Before then, Spain appeared in Western Civ textbooks only sporadically and usually in a very bad light – especially as the necessary “bad guy” in the story of the 1588 Armada.
I could go on and on about the varieties of history – and not just geographical ones – that, to my mind, have been left out of the narrative. But what do you think? What stories have been left out, and why?
This is going to be a two-parter.
Once upon a time I had lunch with David McCullough.
Yes, the David McCullough. And no, I can’t claim that I know him very well. Forgive the explanatory aside, but it so happens that my brother enjoys a certain degree of celebrity in the Boston area, and he, in turn, had made Mr. McCullough’s acquaintance. [Sorry for the mention, bro, but I’ll keep it vague from here on.] It was the autumn of 2003, and my brother – God bless him – had decided that I needed to get away from writing academic monographs and into writing bigger history. It was not something that I was all that eager to do in 2003. Like a lot of academic historians, I harbored a certain contempt for “popular history” as a genre. [Yes, I’ve since had a tremendous change-of-attitude; see my post on amateur and professional historians here.] But my brother had great ambitions for me, and he dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of trade publishing. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.
Anyway, my brother was firmly convinced that if I were to chat with Mr. McCullough then I would cast aside my reservations and jump with both feet from one world to the other. In the long run, it worked. In the short run, not so much. Lunch went great, mind you, once I got over being star-struck (which doesn’t happen often for me). Good Lord, I thought to myself after about ten minutes of conversation with Mr. McCullough, I’m sitting across the table from the Voice of Ken Burns’ Civil War. There was something disconcerting about that.
But more disconcerting was Mr. McCullough’s advice. I had waxed eloquent, describing my idea for a popular narrative approach. It was a story that I had run across in my days as a Scandinavianist. A truly great story about a Lutheran parson in seventeenth-century Denmark who had been (possibly) falsely accused of murder, railroaded to his death on the block, and later avenged by his son. Full of murder, treachery, and all good things. It was too narrow for an academic monograph, and anyway an academic approach would have drained it of all its blood and vigor. Mr. McCullough seemed to like the idea. It was indeed a very good story, he remarked. “But have you given any thought to writing it as fiction?”
I felt as if I had been slapped. Fiction? What the hell? No, I thought, no, I won’t write it as fiction, because it doesn’t need to be fictionalized. Did The Return of Martin Guerre need to be fictionalized? Fortunately I didn’t let my frustration get the better of me. “Well, of course that’s a possibility. But I’d rather write it as non-fiction.”
Mr. McCullough proceeded to teach me a lesson that I didn’t want to hear but definitely needed to hear. What he told me, in essence, was this: Americans like to read about history. Their history. Nothing against Europe, but unless it involved World War II or Hitler or the Tudors then – generally, for of course there were occasional exceptions – then by and large Americans weren’t all that interested. Or, rather, no major press would likely take a chance on it. But Denmark? No. That wouldn’t work, not as non-fiction. Americans don’t read about Denmark, or don’t buy books about it, anyway.
I simply couldn’t believe that. Or I wouldn’t. A good story was a good story, no matter what the setting. Was I supposed to believe that Americans would rather read yet another biography of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln than something new, exotic, bloody, and scandalous?
So for the next twelve months I tried to convince myself that David McCullough couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about. I wrote up what I thought was a very good proposal for my Danish story – and, since I was on sabbatical at the time, I even wrote up a first draft of the completed book. I then peddled my proposal to every literary agent I could find in the US who dealt with “history” or “narrative non-fiction.” Not a nibble. Nothing. Not even rejection letters. Not even form rejection letters. I had just about given up when my brother sent me a review of McCullough’s 1776, a review that lamented the lack of books on the military history of the American Revolution. I thought it over for a few minutes, had a minor epiphany, and the idea that later became The Drillmaster of Valley Forge was born. Now, when I sent out my new proposal – for a biography of the Baron de [von] Steuben, I got responses. Mostly rejections, but lots of interest. And finally an email from a man named Will Lippincott, who shortly thereafter would become my agent. The proposal for Drillmaster wasn’t any more compelling than the one for the Danish story. But it was American, and it included such comfortably familiar things as Valley Forge and George Washington. Hence it was assured of an audience.
How often do we hear that some topic – some allegedly neglected topic – “isn’t in the history books”? It’s got to be one of the most irritating popular phrases about history, right up there with “[some event/person/development/invention] changed the course of history” (that’s so wrong on so many levels, not least because – I hate to break it to you, but…history doesn’t have a course), or “history repeats itself,” or the whole “France has never won a war” meme. [Oh God! I finally used the word “meme”! What’s next – remarking that something is “impactful” or “empowering”?] But “not in the history books”…I don’t know where to start with that one. I understand that it can mean that something is not common knowledge, but saying that it’s “not in the history books” seems to argue that historians have deliberately ignored it. What the phrase usually means, though, is “I’ve never heard of this before but I’m not about to take responsibility for my own ignorance.” You might have to delve into something more detailed than a coffee-table book, or – gasp! – actually read academic literature, but I can assure you that at least nine times out of ten, whenever you hear that something isn’t in “the history books” it actually is. The same thing goes for nearly every book, article, or documentary that purports to tell “the untold story” of one topic or another. Invariably the story has been told before, likely many times. I think it’s just another manifestation of that “history as the Everyman discipline” phenomenon, that people who are clearly not experts in any field of history feel qualified to proclaim that historians have ignored an important topic.
No matter. My point is this: on the one hand, we – Americans, that is – say that we want to hear the untold story, that we want to know those things that weren’t revealed to us in “the history books”…and yet collectively we seem to shy away from topics that are unfamiliar. Occasionally, compelling narrative, by itself, is enough to draw attention; witness Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, each of which tells a story that would be unfamiliar to most Americans.
In academic history, there are very obvious factors driving what it is that historians write about and what they don’t write about – that will be my Part 2 – but for now I’m curious:
How much popular, narrative history is truly original? Or at least novel?
How much covers familiar territory?
And will our thirst for George Washington biographies ever be slaked?
PS That Danish idea? For those of you — and I suspect there’s not many — who read lots of Danish literature, here’s a clue — Blicher’s Præsten i Vejlby, without the parts that Blicher made up. Yes, I’m going to write it. And yes, it’s going to be a novel. Took me long enough to figure it out, eh?