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?
I imagine that this will be a recurring theme for a while – I had thought that one single post would address it sufficiently…until the discussion about reenacting and living history blossomed (well, maybe that’s a tad hyperbolic … but it did get some discussion). The notion of what I like to call “history as everyman discipline” came up, and I think it merits some discussion. Plus I’d like to hear what you think, in particular about a very elementary (and deceptively simple) question:
What, precisely, is a historian, and what does a historian do? What makes someone a historian?
I was trained to be a historian (that’s what Ph.D. programs in history are supposed to do, anyway), and I do history for a living, as a college professor and as an author. And I still have no idea how to answer that question.
But first an anecdote. It has a point, I assure you.
A few years ago, my grad assistant was photocopying some Danish texts for me, using the Xerox machine in the history department office. A couple of my colleagues were interested enough to take a look at the papers being copied. One of them observed, only half-joking, that reading Danish wasn’t too difficult, since he recognized a couple of the words (Danish, like English, is a Germanic language, and there are indeed a few Danish words that are identical or nearly so to their English equivalents – hundrede, for example means “hundred,” though it sounds much much different). He brought this to my attention, observing that he must already be literate in Danish because he understood these few words. I remarked that – by that same logic – I must be a mathematician, since I know some numbers and recognize nearly all of them on sight.
I don’t think he understood my point – which was that knowing a couple of things about a particular subject isn’t the same thing as mastery of it, or even a reasonable understanding of it.
I think that many people – the public “at large,” if you will – have the same kind of attitude towards history and historians. If you have a deep interest in history, and have memorized a few facts and are able to recite them at will, then you are a historian, since we all know that history is nothing more than memorizing stuff. I hear this from students all the time, usually undergrads who are new to history as a profession. Some of them don’t fully understand the difference between a “teacher” and a “scholar” (and that can certainly be forgiven them – there are plenty of “teachers” at the college level who don’t really practice scholarship per se); few entirely get the concept that interpretations of the past change over time, and that there can be more than one way of looking at, or understanding, the past. So, to them, a historian is someone who has learned lots of facts about the past and is able to arrange them into some kind of intelligible narrative. There’s no need for analysis, of course, “just the facts” – because as we all know (or so I’ve been told), “history repeats itself.” [Lord, how I hate that phrase…it’s so wrong. Back to that later.]
That practice – the aggregation of “facts” about the past just for their own sake – is what historians call “antiquarianism,” and it’s not the same thing as “history” as historians practice it (or tell themselves that they practice it). Antiquarians usually tell a story. Usually. At best, an antiquarian narrative reads something like “this happened. Then something else happened. Then yet another thing happened” – a plain narrative, that is. At worst, there’s no narrative. Take a look at many local histories – accounts of the history of an individual American county or town, for example – and especially the self-published ones. You’ll see what I mean. Often the author leaps from topic to topic as the whim strikes him/her without even trying to create something that reads like a story.
Professional historians often make use of antiquarian studies. I know I used quite a few older histories of Boston and other Massachusetts towns when I wrote Whites of Their Eyes, and sometimes such works included information that has since been lost in the documentary record. Absolutely invaluable, in other words. Even then, the material couldn’t always be trusted. That’s not my point here. The point is that professional historians endeavor (not always successfully) to wring some meaning or greater significance from their study of the past. Narrative, in these terms, is incidental to analysis – which is why, sometimes, the most important research produced by historians is presented in a way that the “lay public” – non-specialists – would find rough-going, even downright dull, and why academic historians who are able to bridge the divide between “academic” and “lay” audiences do so because they know how to write compelling narrative. [Simon Schama, David Hackett Fischer, and Edward Lengel come immediately to mind.]
I think that’s why, at least in part, professional/academic historians get annoyed, frustrated, or otherwise upset by our general tendency to label anyone who knows something about the past as being a “historian.” I know I have, although I can’t say it really upsets me anymore. Sometimes, at book signings, someone will ask me about my research and then say something like “My husband is a historian, too. He reads all the time. I’ll bet he’s read at least a dozen books about the Revolution…or maybe it wasn’t the Revolution, but some kind of history stuff. And he’s been to all the battlefields and knows just everything about them.” Sometimes I get an email from a reader who declares himself to be “a fellow historian” – and then reveals that he hasn’t actually been trained as a historian but he’s read a lot about it, and that what makes him a “fellow historian” is his enthusiasm for the topic. To someone who has spent four to twelve years in a Ph.D. program in history, digesting the contents of thousands of books, learning not just one research field but a broad range of history, mastering perhaps a few languages and – likely – paleography too (paleography is the study of old handwriting; for anyone who has ever, without preparation, attempted to read original manuscripts from eighteenth-century America, or Elizabethan England, you know exactly what I’m talking about), and then devoted a big chunk of one’s life to immersion in archives and libraries to master a particular topic, then … well, let’s just say it’s all too easy for such a person to respond, “No, sorry, you’re not a fellow historian. You’re someone who likes history a lot, and there’s a huge difference.” When a History Channel documentary on the sinking of the Titanic features an interview with a Titanic buff – someone who has spent his life reading about the Titanic, and labels that person as a “Titanic historian,” we’re likely to think “Unless you can put the Titanic’s sinking in the broader context of maritime history, or the history of technology, or the social history of the Anglophone world, then you’re not a historian – you’re someone who knows a lot about the Titanic, and they’re not the same thing.”
If those outside the all-too-tight-knit and exclusive circle of professional historians don’t know what it is that historians do, to a great degree that is the fault of historians themselves, who rarely “speak” to the public and mostly communicate among themselves. Even highly educated and literate people outside the community of professional historians are frequently unaware of what historians do and what they hope to accomplish. A friend and former colleague of mine, a noted historian of modern Russia, once told me about a dinner conversation he had with a biologist from his university. After listening to my colleague tell her about his research, the biologist asked, “Isn’t that expensive?” Well, yes, of course it is, my colleague noted, pointing out that grants and other external funding are much harder to come by in the humanities than in the sciences. No, the biologist continued, that wasn’t what she meant. “I mean the translations. With all those books and all those tens of thousands of manuscripts written in Russian, especially from the eighteenth century, getting a translator to render those into modern English would cost a lot, wouldn’t it?” My friend was dumbfounded by the observation, but after a brief pause it struck him: why would anyone outside of history know that professional historians do all this themselves? To us, it’s just part of the training – if you’re going to study Russian history, for example, you’re going to have to learn modern Russian – to read it, of course, but also to speak it and write it (so you can communicate with research contacts and leads, and to get along day-to-day when you’re doing archival research abroad). You’re going to have to learn the dialects that were in frequent use during the period you’re studying. You’ll probably have to learn several other languages besides, especially if you’re dealing with a topic that has any kind of international dimension. And you’re going to have to learn the paleography (sometimes several paleographies), plus anything else that you would have to know to understand the context of a letter written in a distant time and place – different conventions about calendars, for example, or money, or bureaucratic titles. Years of preparation goes into one’s first venture into the archives, or else it would be impossible to understand any of the research material. You don’t go through that preparation because it’s going to make you wealthier, or more famous. You do it because that’s what’s necessary before you can call yourself a historian.
A great example from recent literature. Michael Crichton is of course famous for his relatively sophisticated fiction, so I was expecting a real treat when I first read his book Timeline. Not a bad book, after all, but what struck me most was that Crichton had no idea about how historians worked. I won’t go into great detail here, but the main characters – academic historians – are conducting a study, historical and archaeological, of a medieval French castle. Besides the fact that Crichton seemed to be unfamiliar with the concept of historical archaeology, the thing that was oddest was that the scholars directing the project had to rely upon a whole host of specialists do provide advice on all sorts of things that, apparently, the historians couldn’t do themselves. Like a “graphologist.” What this individual did in Timeline was to make sense of the handwriting styles of the period for the historians. It’s news to me. I’ve never worked with a “graphologist” during my career. Because, in our little world, historians aren’t historians unless they can do that kind of work themselves. A historian of medieval France who couldn’t decipher medieval French paleography and read it quickly – nearly as fast as he could read his native language – probably wouldn’t be able to get a Ph.D. I think in this case Mr. Crichton may have been better attuned to the sciences, in which collaborative work is the norm, where historians tend to do most of their work alone.
So…where am I after all these ramblings? Right back where I started. What makes someone a historian? Is it having a professional degree in history? If so, then the most famous historians in America today aren’t actually historians. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough…none of these have Ph.D.s in history, but they’re clearly historians. Certainly I’m not about to not think of them as historians. Although this is based purely on impressionistic evidence, I would venture to say that the vast majority of those who have published “popular” history with any of the Big Six houses over the past couple of decades are all in the same boat. Professional journalists are disproportionately represented among the writers of popular history, and while there are some among that throng who I don’t consider to be historians that doesn’t mean that none of them are historians in my view. And, for that matter, having a professional degree in history doesn’t necessarily make you a historian, either. Or at least not a very good historian. [I can think of a couple of prominent history Ph.D.s who aren’t particularly astute as historians.] I guess the best I can come up with right now is that I know a historian when I see him/her.
What do you think? What makes someone a historian?
Mid-ranking northern monarch. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Besides what it says about the divorce from Catherine of Aragon (which isn’t entirely new, but at least Dr. Fletcher puts it at the front of the queue), it’s nice to see a historian of Tudor England noting that Tudor England wasn’t exactly at the center of the known universe. Check this out:
It’s been a few days since my last post; I’ve been swamped with things that I have to write, that have kept me away from what I want to write…like this blog. I have something coming tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m responding to yet another query as to the origin of the banner illustration (above). I found it while working on my Frederik II and the Protestant Cause book, probably the book I’m proudest of. Not that it reads quite like my trade titles (hint: it’s written for academics), but I’ve never put so much research into anything I’ve ever done before, and this book took LOTS. Much of the book deals with King Frederik II’s attempts to create an international Protestant alliance to counter what he (and other Protestant sovereigns, like Elizabeth I) saw as an international Catholic conspiracy. This is a drawing of a fireworks display that was executed to celebrate the christening of the infant heir-apparent of Denmark, Frederik II’s eldest son, the later King Christian IV of Denmark, in 1577. The description of the event indicates that this was fully mechanized…and quite ingenious. A Landsknecht (soldier), carrying a burning torch, advanced from the building on the right of the drawing, crossed the bridge, and thrust the torch into the mouth of the pope (figure in the center of the square at left — the individuals on the corners were just meant to be monks, probably Jesuits). Then the head of the papal effigy caught fire and he exploded. I’m not sure what specific message it was supposed to convey…but I’m sure the notion of an exploding pope was a happy one for Lutheran Denmark at the time.
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.
I had planned on saving this for later, but it’s been much on my mind in the past few days and I’m afraid that I have to vent now.
Earlier in December, I was in New York for a signing. Lectures can be fun (I teach, so speaking engagements aren’t exactly a huge change-of-pace); signings are always fun. Or nearly always. This one was particularly, well, cozy. Good-sized crowd but still intimate, Revolutionary War enthusiasts all, very friendly. There was a wine-and-cheese reception before the lecture. I ventured into it, looking forward to chatting with new acquaintances. Just before it was time for me to give a formal talk about Whites of Their Eyes, an older gentleman (meaning older than myself; I’m forty-eight, but my five-year-old son tells me at least once a week that I’m too old and I need to stop having birthdays) approached me, shook my hand and introduced himself. He made some genuinely flattering compliments about Whites of Their Eyes, and then he started to ask me about my previous book, Drillmaster of Valley Forge. That led to a breezy and stimulating discussion about the role played by foreign officers in the Continental Army. My new friend recalled the Marquis de Lafayette. Then he asked if any other French officers served. There were a good number of French officers, I answered, and mostly highly professional ones who served loyally and competently.
I should have seen what was coming next.
“Really?” My companion’s eyebrows shot up high in utter disbelief. “That’s surprising!” He mused for a moment, rolled his eyes, and then chuckled. “For a country, you know, that didn’t win any battles, to have competent officers.”
This was not the first time I had had this conversation. Actually, I’ve been dragged into what I’ve begun to refer to as the “We-saved-France’s-ass-in-two-world-wars-because-they-don’t-know-how-to-fight” dialogue many times before. Mostly with undergrads who knew just enough history to be dangerous. And by “dangerous” I mean “annoying.” I didn’t want to ascend my soapbox or pulpit or whatever the hell it is I ascend when a great historical injustice needs fixin’. But I couldn’t let it get away entirely, either. So I just smiled and replied, casual and friendly: “That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding. France has been a major military power – and a very successful one – for most of its modern history. But when Americans think of France, they think of 1940 and nothing else. The French capitulated in one war – and not without good reason, either – and now that’s all we see. It’s more than a bit unfair.”
I must have ruffled my companion’s feathers a bit. He clearly didn’t like my answer. “It’s not just 1940, it’s 1914, too! We saved them in the first war also!” An easy point to refute; after all, in the “we-saved-France’s-ass” dialogue, this was what usually came next. I pointed out to him that the French held out against the German army in its prime on the Western Front, absorbing almost unimaginable casualties in the process, and that American troops only made a significant contribution to the war in the West in the last few months of the conflict. In other words, the French didn’t capitulate in 1917, and if the USA came to the rescue in 1918 it was only because France had held out for so long without American help.
I might as well have been singing La Marseillaise while waving the tricolor over my head. For all my well-rehearsed erudition (or so I told myself it was), I did nothing more than convince the other gentleman that I was some kind of Francophile. I tried to convince him, tried to make references to Napoléon Bonaparte, to the French Revolutionary armies, to the great Turenne and Condé and Montcalm. All to no effect. With a mumbled “I’ll have to check into that sometime,” my erstwhile companion abruptly broke off the conversation and disappeared into the small crowd of attendees now hovering around the platters of cheese and crackers.
I felt a little disappointed. I don’t like alienating people, and I’m always surprised at how often people – not even professional historians with advanced degrees and a surfeit of pride – take it personally when you rain on their parades. Usually, in conversation with a new acquaintance, I try to veer off-topic if a clash seems imminent. But I just can’t make myself do it when the “France as the perpetual loser” theme comes up.
Because – unlike a lot of what I like to see as wrongheaded interpretations of history – this isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s demonstrably, absolutely, irrefutably false. France prevailed in the last decades of the Hundred Years’ conflicts with England (and those were the decades that counted). French armies more than held their own in the Habsburg-Valois wars fought over northern Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century.
It was in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the greatest international contest of the early modern era, that France emerged to take Spain’s place as Europe’s superpower. France bankrolled the victorious Swedish war effort, and fielded redoubtable armies of her own…including the army that, under the great Condé, defeated the Spanish at Rocroi in 1643, arguably one of the most important battles of that conflict. The armies of Louis XIV kept the other European powers occupied from the mid-1660s to 1713, even when faced with overwhelming odds – and with great opponents like the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène.
Napoléon Bonaparte should scarcely require mention; his career alone is enough to show how dead wrong the image of “France as the perpetual loser” really is. Even when poorly led, as in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, French troops accomplished incredible things (we’ll get back to that later); even when going through bad luck (as in much of the eighteenth century), it was France – not Britain, not Prussia – that all European soldiers looked to for guidance in military theory and innovative ideas.
There’s a reason that the U.S. army – before, during, and after the Civil War – tried to emulate everything the French army did, and it wasn’t just those adorable Zouave uniforms. There’s a reason that Friedrich Engels (yes, he of “Marx and…” fame), an informed and keen observer of European armies in his day, considered the French army to be the finest in the world in 1860. In fact, it was that quality that made France’s defeats in 1870-71 and 1940 so shocking to contemporaries …because contemporaries, even Americans, knew something that Americans today seem to have forgotten: that France was a great military power. Its defeat by upstarts – Prussia in 1871, Nazi Germany in 1940 – seemed all but impossible.
Over the years, Americans have found one thing after another to dislike about France and the French. Lots of things to admire and emulate, too. We often berate ourselves for our collective ignorance of our past; fabricating a make-believe past for another nation, and then crowing about our self-proclaimed superiority to that nation…well, I’m fairly certain that that’s worse than mere ignorance.