Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past
Edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
Basic. 392 pp.
There is no escaping the long shadow that history has cast over contemporary American life. Whether Supreme Court justices jockeying over the original intent of the Founding Fathers, universities probing how much of their wealth derived from slavery, public officials removing memorials to white supremacists or school boards debating the content of history curriculums, we are daily reminded of how much the past shapes the present and inevitably the future. A new book edited by a distinguished team of Princeton historians — Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, who previously co-authored “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974” — sets out to interrogate what they claim has been the alarming rise of an “age of disinformation,” a deliberate effort to distort facts to advance right-wing myths: “narratives about the past [that make it] … impossible to imagine futures that are substantially different.” Not surprisingly, they locate the most pernicious warriors against the truth in the Trump administration, and the Republican Party more broadly, aided by a conservative media ecosystem. That effort culminated in the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission report, released in the final days of the Trump White House with no American historian among the authors, to provide a national history that would promote “patriotic education.” Kruse and Zelizer dismiss it instead as propaganda that values “feeling good over thinking hard” and “celebration over complex understanding.”
This recent attack on truth motivated Kruse and Zelizer to assemble 20 essays in a volume with the somewhat sensationalist title “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.” That grandiose billing aside, the book brings together outstanding historians who draw on rich, often surprising recent research by themselves and others to present a much more complicated and less congratulatory picture of many of the most contentious issues in the nation’s history. Moreover, these essays treat readers to wonderfully accessible, jargon-free historical writing.
We learn from Akhil Reed Amar about the flaws alongside the strengths of the Constitution, from Sarah Churchwell that Donald Trump’s “America First” goes back to the 1850s as a marker more of discord than of unity against foreign enemies, and from Geraldo Cadava that for much of American history the border was a site of connection rather than illegality. Karen Cox links the current conflicts over removing Confederate monuments to the “Lost Cause” rationale for the Civil War that can be traced back as far as the war’s end. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela exposes how, despite the frequent charge that feminism is anti-family, from its origins in temperance and abolitionism through to suffrage and the founding of the National Organization for Women most feminists have defended the traditional family.
Interestingly, almost all of the essays depart in a significant way from the premise laid out by Kruse and Zelizer — that trafficking in untruths and spinning myths about the past in service of a political agenda are products of the Trump years. Rather, almost every essay documents how deeply embedded these myths have been in American history. David Bell’s examination of American Exceptionalism shows how, rather than a time-honored truth about the country, it was an idea created during the early 20th century and recast “at different moments and for different reasons, serving the needs of different constituencies.” Ari Kelman documents how the mythology of the American continent as a blank slate, absent of Indians, arrived with the first settlers. Erika Lee claims that Trump’s anti-immigration rant that “they keep coming” has a long history, consistently overlooking decades of American recruitment of immigrants to make the nation an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. Daniel Immerwahr refutes America’s idealized self-image of having avoided an empire; he insists we had one from the very start.