Daily Archives: February 5, 2007

Appealing Myths of History

It is fascinating to see what grabs the popular imagination in terms of historical myths and the process by which they are debunked. I, for example, was raised with the charming one about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then confessing as he would never tell a lie. Hopefully by now, most know this was complete fiction, made-up by Parson Weems to teach a lesson (what else?).

More recently has come a more difficult situation. This is the story of quilts providing signs for those in the Underground Railroad. Because quilts are so used in education, because the Underground Railroad is a standard part of the curriculum (particularly during February — Black History Month), and because the story is so appealing it is a difficult one to debunk. However, there is compelling evidence to indicate that this was simply not the case. How folks deal with this, whether they will chose to continue to teach it as history, as myth, or what else will be interesting to see. My guess is it will linger for a few more years and then quietly (as has happened with the George Washington myth of my childhood) slip away.

Another likely myth being presented as history is another George Washington story — this one of him hearing about the story of Hanukkah at Valley Forge. I had seen Stephen Krensky’s picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge (illustrated by Greg Harlin) and wondered about the veracity of the story. And now here comes J.L. Bell to the rescue with a very detailed consideration of the story behind the book.

To me the answer is to always be a tiny bit skeptical¬† with history — the past is a sea of material, bits of which are always washing up onto the shore of the present for us to piece together into some sort of historical narrative.¬† And as new pieces wash ashore we have to continual rethink and rework those historical narratives.


Filed under Historical Fiction, History