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.

Follow by Email

Friday, August 03, 2012

“Myths in History” from Colonial Williamsburg

The latest issue of Colonial Williamsburg magazine offers an article by Gil Klein about “The Use of Myths in History.” Klein discusses the power and possible inevitability of historical myths:
In the view of professional historians, these myths should be punctured. But historians do so at their peril. The myths are more beloved than the cold facts, and they are hard to kill.

Many of them are designed to explain us as we wish to see ourselves. They establish the national character and set the standard for coming generations. . . .

The Past and history are different things, wrote British historian J. H. Plumb. People have always used The Past to explain the origins and purpose of human life, to sanctify government institutions, to validate class structure, to provide moral example. Only in the past two or three hundred years, he said, has historical study developed “to see things as they really were.”

Said historian John Thorn, “Historians have an obligation to embrace myth as the people’s history.”
That last statement seems to miss the fact that historical myths are often created to keep “the people” from questioning existing structures of power. And the whole article seems to flirt with the idea that national myths are not only an inescapable fact of life but a Good Thing. I’m not sure an accurate, cleared-eyed understanding of history and a rejection of myths is necessary for a successful society, but I still like to believe such awareness is a Good Thing.

The online edition of the article also includes the magazine’s illustrations of its myths, a selection of additional images, and a podcast interview with Klein.

13 comments:

Joanq said...

I can only imagine if someone had written a story about the Battle of Penobscot where Paul Revere was court martialed for cowardice how history would look at him in a different light.

J. L. Bell said...

We'd probably barely remember Paul Revere if not for H. W. Longfellow. But another author of Longfellow's era might have latched onto another individual to elevate into a mythical hero and turn the complex events of 18-19 Apr 1775 into a more compelling narrative.

babu21 said...

Basically I'm a student of history and your article is more helpful to me. Thanks...

Todd Gardner said...

Truth is the antidote to myth. Too much myth can be detrimental to a healthy society. On the other hand, myth helps explain and bond movements that accomplish a societal good or provide a needed outlet for frustration. A balance between the two is necessary for people to co-exist due to perspective. Truth is hard to see but benefits from constant questioning...such as what occurs on this site.

Thingumbobesquire said...

There are myths and parables. Antidotes to the myths of arbitrary rule by cliques to impose their irrational will have been among the greatest literature of civilization. Rabelais' Pantagruel, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Plato's "Myth of the Cave" in his Republic, to name but a few of the foremost that immediately come to mind.

J. L. Bell said...

Isn't Plato's Republic an argument for rule by a small elite?

It's interesting how fictional stories, such as Don Quixote, can provide national myths without making a claim to historical authenticity.

Anonymous said...

By the same token, the power of myth has also typically been at least partially geounded in true events, people and circumstances.
For dozens to hundreds of years, traditional scholarship held firm to the belief that the legendary city of Teoy was just that : a legend. A "myth."
Then, archaeology found out that traditional thought was woefully mistaken.

rfuller said...

To me, it is still stunning that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, descendant of Peleg Wadsworth, one of the officers who had to deal with Revere's cowardice at Penobscot, and also helped bring charges against him, would write anything praising Revere. Peleg must be spinning in his grave. I wonder if Longfellow was aware of their common history? Of course, nobody could ever accuse Longfellow of closely hewing to an historical narrative in "Paul Revere's Ride"...;)

Derek Beck said...

Very interesting. Let me add: it is sometimes necessary to use the myths to fill in the narrative where we have no confirmed facts otherwise.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that most historical myths are grounded in some fact, but it's the distortions, omissions, or falsifications that turn events into myth. Even ordinary storytelling has the effect of simplifying events, making them easier to grasp and often imbuing them with meaning that serves the time and the teller. So the historical fact ends up offering cover for the mythic elements of the story.

I don't use "myth" as a synonym for oral or unsourced traditions; those can be useful historical sources, but they also by their nature can be conduits for myths. Though narrative historians are eager to fill in gaps, I think it's necessary to be clear when there's not enough evidence to do so, or to do so with any certainty.

Heather Rockwood said...

rfuller, this may be in the same token Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was a descendant of one of the judges at the Salem Witchcraft trials of 1692, Judge John Hathorne, even going as far as putting the "w" in his name so as not to be connected to him. Perhaps Longfellow felt the same embarrassment of ancestry and instead of changing his middle name (or not using it, also an option) he wrote "Paul Revere's Ride" to make up for what he considered his ancestors failings. That is, if he was aware of the connection at all.

Susannah Stengel said...

I couldn't agree more! We have to stride that line between tacitly accepting every half-baked piece of myth that floats our way (especially when that myth may be used to support unfair or outmoded social systems), but tossing out our historical myths altogether can sap some of the flavor and life from our national identity. Great analysis.

J. L. Bell said...

Longfellow and Hawthorne definitely talked about the process of turning historical traditions into new art. Longfellow got the subject of Evangeline from Hawthorne, for example. But I sense that Longfellow wore his heritage more easily than Hawthorne wore his.