Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, May 09, 2008

A good word for the much-maligned Pilgrims

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
By Tony Horwitz

Review in the New York Times Book Review by Andrew Ferguson, author of Land of Lincoln

Mr. Ferguson gives us a lively overview of Mr. Horwitz's breezy popular history of the Norse, French, Spanish and English colonies, and I thought I would go out and buy the book until I got to the end of the review--at which point Mr. Ferguson jumps all over Mr. Horwitz for his oh-so-predictable politically correct views. Here is the relevant passage; it is a pleasure to read this (and to save $25-plus):

...Contempt for the explorers, whether Spanish or English, is now the common default position...among most of the park rangers, academics, and political activists Horwitz encounters. Mostly, Horwitz shares their view....[The sins of the colonists] has long been Horwitz’s theme, and rather than simply explaining it, he demonstrates the truth of it, in story after story. Yet there are times when his treatment seems unaccountably creaky and shopworn. Returning to Plymouth at book’s end, Horwitz celebrates Thanksgiving with the townsfolk. As he has done with the conquistadors and the Norse and the French, he can’t resist making the debunker’s case about the “myths” surrounding the explorers and settlers. The Pilgrims probably didn’t eat turkey or pumpkin pie at a Thanksgiving dinner that they didn’t consider a thanksgiving and to which they didn’t invite the natives, who were in any case weakened with disease, which made them vulnerable to looting — by the Pilgrims... The Pilgrims’ arrival in America was, on balance, a calamity [according to Horwitz], which is why, nowadays, even Plymoutheans mark an annual “Day of Mourning.”

Isn’t this getting a bit old by now? We are three generations, maybe more, into an era in which the once-cheeky assertions of historical revisionism — Columbus didn’t discover America, Europeans invented scalping, the founding fathers were real estate sharpies — have become utterly conventional, the refuge of grad-school plodders and boomer journalists alike. An inheritor and practitioner of this fraying tradition, Horwitz tries, to his credit, to complicate the picture, just a little.

“I could chase after facts across early America, uncover hidden or forgotten ‘truths,’ explode fantasies about the country’s founding,” he writes. “But I’d failed to appreciate why these myths persisted. People needed them.” While the old myths may be false in all their particulars, in other words, it’s probably not so bad if the common folk comfort themselves with lies. Myths, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, satisfy a “psychic need.” But surely this is an unsatisfying conclusion. Are we really supposed to shrug off mass ignorance and self-delusion?

If indeed that’s what it is. Then again, maybe people have believed the historical myths for reasons beyond their own gullibility. Think how refreshing it would be for a writer of Horwitz’s gifts to approach the task of pop history from the opposite direction — not to pick apart a myth but to explain those elements within it that are, after all, true. The myth of the Pilgrims, for example, comes in many shapes and sizes, each containing a different portion of factual accuracy. But underlying them all is what was once understood to be a basic fact: these battered and luckless wanderers carried with them a set of peculiar principles that slowly unfolded into a spectacularly successful experiment in freedom, prosperity and human dignity, something unforeseen and without parallel in all history. If our best writers delight in attacking the myth, it’s probably because they no longer see this truth as self-evident.