J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Heritage Versus History

At the end of Hanukkah at Valley Forge, author Stephen Krensky acknowledges its shaky historical foundation by starting his author’s note like this:

This story of George Washington and Hanukkah is based on facts, but the tale itself must be taken on faith.
Now “faith” can be a synonym for religion, and there’s no doubt that the legend of Hanukkah at Valley Forge has spread through religious channels. I. Harold Sharfman, author of Jews on the Frontier, was a rabbi. His main sources were rabbis: Joshua Trachtenberg, author of Consider the Years; and David Hollander, who told him the anecdote about Washington. Several of the other writers who have retold this tale were rabbis. Even Louisa B. Hart, who wrote about George Washington having visited her father’s house, was known for being “untiring in her devotion to the religious education of the young,” according to JewishEncyclopedia.com.

But I sense a different meaning in Krensky’s phrase “must be taken on faith”: an acknowledgment that accepting this story requires an act of mental will to leap over the gaps in the evidence. But what does one get in return?

Often believing in what isn’t or can’t be documented is more powerful than believing in what can be. Anyone can believe that Washington was at Valley Forge in 1777-78; indeed, given the strength of the evidence, we have to believe that statement or be considered irrational. But to believe that Washington learned about Hanukkah at Valley Forge when there’s no evidence of that—that act of will may help to define a person’s values or group identity.

History—the events of the past, or the study of them—is often in conflict with our society's need for heritage—a way of looking at or recreating the past that serves current cultural or psychological needs. Heritage might tell us that, say, our group is special or that our current customs are deeply rooted in the past. David Lowenthal’s essay Fabricating Memory” explores this distinction further:
Heritage uses historical traces and tells historical tales. But these tales and traces are stitched into fables closed to critical scrutiny. Heritage is immune to criticism because it is not erudition but catechism—not checkable fact but credulous allegiance. Heritage is not a testable or even plausible version of our past; it is a declaration of faith in that past. . . .

...heritage restricts messages to an elect group whose private property it is. History tells all who will listen what has happened and how things came to be as they are. Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and endurance, endowing us alone with prestige and purpose. It benefits us by being withheld from others.
Heritage is defined, controlled, and ultimately taken on faith. History continues to flop about, to seep into corners and bubble up where it’s not wanted. Heritage often comes to us in neat stories. History just keeps coming.

In John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt, which just opened in Boston, one character says: “Truth tends to make a bad sermon. It’s very confusing and has no clear conclusion.” Substitute “history” for “truth” there, and perhaps “story” for “sermon,” and the wisdom is just as clear.

TOMORROW: Washington’s real words of support for American Jews.

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