I’ve been involved with reenacting for most of my adult life, sporadically but intensely. And to be perfectly honest, as a historian I have truly mixed feelings about that. In part, it’s the whole “honoring one’s ancestors” aspect of reenacting / living history, which I’ve never fully understood; in part it’s the notion that someone who has never done primary-source research, has perhaps watched a documentary or two, and partially absorbed a secondary source (usually dubious) can tell a wide-eyed public that he/she is a “historian.” But more about that later. I want to ruminate on this for a couple of days and write something up. And if anyone is reading this, I’d like to read their opinions about the merits/flaws they see in historical reenacting … let me hear from you.
Another not so substantive post…perhaps two quasi-posts equal one decent one? Probably not. But I wanted to share the following anyway, not because of its political content. I’m going to do my level best to steer clear of modern American politics where I can. But this bothers me, on many levels, and it ties in to an earlier post ( “Victory? What the hell is that? We don’t even have a word for it!” ). And yes, I do know it’s not all that current. Over a week old, in fact. It’s still awful. Newt Gingrich revealing that … oh Lord … Mitt Romney has a vague familiarity with spoken French! Perhaps the flipside of the time-honored and completely wrongheaded “France-as-perpetual-loser” in warfare — France as the most effete of all European states (and they’re all pretty effete, by this line of reasoning), and any familiarity with French culture is, for an American (and American males in particular), a sign of weakness and elitism. Probably a sign of being just a tad un-American, too. Nothing’s more un-American than someone puttin’ on airs and thinkin’ he’s better’n us. And nothing says that like Mitt Romney clumsily / dutifully reciting “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney.” [Of course Gingrich was offended; Romney sounded like a native, didn’t he? I almost expected him to continue in singsong: “Où est la gare? La gare est en face de la pharmacie!”] Ah, partial mastery of first-year high-school French — truly the most damning affectation a candidate for president could sport.
It’s funny, given how once Americans admired everything French — and uncritically so, too — that our francophobia is now so deep-rooted that some of us automatically distrust anyone who shows anything resembling familiarity with French culture. It’s hardly a new thing — witness Frederick the Great’s affinity for French music, language, and literature, and how his father, King Frederick William I of Prussia, regarded that taste. [In a nutshell, not well at all.] Oh well. C’est la vie.
Nothing terribly substantive this time, alas. It’s just that I’ve been getting a few questions about the source of the banner photo at the top of this page. It’s not too bad a photo, considering that I took it; I’m very much of the opinion that anyone can get a really great shot (not that this is one of them) every now and again — all you have to do is take thousands of photos and a few of them are bound to turn out decently.
Anyway, this is a photo of Kalø Castle, on the Jutish mainland in Denmark. Or rather the ruins of Kalø. I was last there in April 2000, when I took this photo. It’s a very lonely, windswept place, perched on a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow stone-paved causeway. [For a brief history in English of the castle, with links to a couple of Danish sites, click here.] Not much of it is left since it was largely demolished late in the seventeenth century, but the ruins are gorgeous — lonely and desolate but gorgeous. I picked it for my banner because
I miss Denmark. I really miss Denmark.
I’m planning on writing a novel — yes, a novel — which will be set at Kalø among other places. I’m not giving up non-fiction, and in fact I already have another book in the works; more on that later. But years ago I ran across one of the truly great stories from Danish history, a story that’s full of anger and blood and revenge and, yes, sex. Not a happy story, mind you, and it’s actually quite grim. Unfortunately, interest in Danish history being not especially acute in the US, I’m going to follow some advice David McCullough once gave me and make it fiction. It’ll be more fun that way, anyhow.
In the meantime, here’s another purty picture of Kalø:
OK. Another rant. Sort of. I don’t plan on writing posts based entirely on anger or indignation, not always at least, but as I’m on a roll I think I’ll go with it.
And, like the previous rant – the one on warfare and the French – this comes from an interesting (read unfortunate / awkward) conversation I had while I was promoting Whites of Their Eyes. In this case it was a radio interview. I think I did about twenty or so radio interviews in my “radio tour” to promote Whites of Their Eyes, most of them for early morning AM talk radio or NPR affiliates. They’re usually brisk and stimulating, and though sometimes my five-year-old son interrupts (his bedroom is opposite our home office; it’s all too easy for him to venture out of his bedroom, in pajamas or just wearing his socks, and announce loudly – loud enough to be heard by the interviewer on the other end of the line – that he can’t find his underwear or that the cat is stealing his Star Wars toys) they usually go very well. Often they’re fun. Sometimes there are call-ins, which adds an entirely different dimension to the interview.
One morning, I was scheduled to “appear” on a book-talk show for a Midwest NPR affiliate. Great show, great host, great questions from most of the callers. Several of them were intrigued by a point I had made in the book and in the interview: that the American militiamen who laid siege to Boston in 1775 were not frontiersmen, not dead-eyed marksmen who had learned from Native Americans how to fight in the wilderness. The conventional wisdom was – is, actually – that American soldiers were toughened Indian-fighters, crack shots, while the British were stubbornly unwilling to learn how to fight in the American wilderness. In fact, as one historian after another proclaims, British officers actively discouraged their men from actually taking careful aim while firing because it kept the rate of fire unacceptably low. The latter argument falls perfectly in line with the common American historical stereotype of the foppish, impractical, aristocratic Briton – what a colleague of mine calls “the legend of the silly Brit” – while reinforcing the age-old notion that Americans are inherently more practical, more resourceful, and less hide-bound by tradition than their European cousins.
Instead, though some of the American soldiers present at Lexington and Concord, or at Bunker Hill for that matter, had undoubtedly fought in the French and Indian War two decades before, most had not. There’s evidence that some militia companies indulged in occasional target practice in the spring and summer of 1775, and even learned the rudiments of drill, but this hardly makes them marksmen. And, conversely, the British commander in Boston – General Thomas Gage – made sure that the men in his command regularly practiced “shooting at marks.” Target practice, in other words. In short: in 1775, at least, professional British soldiers were probably handier with a musket than American colonists were.
I’m certainly not the first historian to make that point. But one caller that morning not only took exception to the argument; he was positively infuriated by it.
“How can you sit there and say [actually, I was standing at the time, but it’s a minor point and probably not discernable via radio] that American soldiers in the Revolution weren’t familiar with firearms?” Already his voice started to crack; there was no doubting that this man was angry.
“I didn’t say they weren’t familiar with them,” I replied. “I said that they were less familiar with them than we like to believe. The British trained daily not only in the manual of arms and in the ‘higher schools’ of drill, but also very frequently in marksmanship. Americans didn’t. It’s pretty simple.” I know it sounds like I was being smug, but honestly I wasn’t. I knew this guy was hostile and it made me uncomfortable. I did my level best to keep things cordial.
He practically spat out his next words. “That’s wrong. Just plain wrong. The colonists used firearms every day – to protect themselves and their homes, to hunt. They would have starved if they didn’t know how to use firearms. They depended on hunting for survival.” There was a distinct “Well, if you’re so smart, how do you explain this?” tone to his reply.
“You have to remember,” I tried to be as soothing as possible, “that eastern Massachusetts – that most of New England – was no longer on the frontier. It had been a few generations since people along the coast had had to worry about raids by Native Americans or by the French. And as for hunting: these men were farmers. Hunting was not unknown, but no one in eastern New England depended upon it for their survival.”
The caller tried to interrupt, sputtering, but I kept at it. “Besides, there’s so much evidence to the contrary. The frequency of injury and death from accidental shootings in camp, for instance.”
At that point, mercifully, my interviewer cut the caller off. I’m pretty sure he tried to call back and continue, but the interviewer didn’t take the call. I’m thankful she did. It had been a truly unpleasant exchange.
I found, with writing The Whites of Their Eyes, just how tightly Americans like to cling to their historical mythology. It made a big impression on me. In part, that’s because people tend to be conservative when it comes to the stories they’ve come to accept as part of their national heritage. They don’t like to find out that they might have been wrong. But that clinginess seems to be the worst when it undermines cherished ideas about American exceptionalism – the notion that there is something special, or everything special, about America from the very moment of its violent birth…in this case, that Americans were natural-born warriors, distinct from and superior to the professional soldiers – the mercenaries – of European armies, the slaves of despotic regimes…or so we like to view them. There’s no doubting that Americans have many good reasons to be proud of their history. But allowing an unquestioning belief in the uniqueness of Americans in everything – or the unique superiority of Americans in everything…that’s tantamount to throwing away any pretense at objectivity in looking at our past. That’s not history; that’s heritage, the conscious and self-serving use of the past to make us feel better about ourselves, or to justify feelings of superiority. Unfortunately, it’s all too common in the way we view our history. It’s been all too common in the political rhetoric of the past few months as the established political parties have geared up for the presidential election campaign of 2012. But it’s useless as history and dangerous as a political instrument.
I’ll leave that be for now…but I’m coming back to it. There’s just too much to say about history and American exceptionalism to reduce to a single post.