Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. By James W. Loewen. (New York: The New Press, 1999. 467 pp. Illustrations, appendices, notes, index. $26.95 cloth.)
James Loewen's Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong is a welcome sequel to his 1995 American Book Award winning Lies My Teacher Told Me. Where the earlier volume focuses on K-12 American History textbooks (and thus not so much lying teachers as sloppy authors, negligent editors, and irresponsible textbook advisory committees), Lies Across America explores the deceptive history the incomplete history, and the just plain bad history inscribed in historic sites and monuments across the United States. The result is a provocative, frustrating (too often), amusing (not often enough), and thoroughly convincing portrait of America's "landscape of denial."
Like Caesar's Gaul, Loewen's book is divided into three parts. The opening section is comprised of five short essays that provide the context for our tour of America's dysfunctional historical landscape. First, Loewen makes his case for why we ought to care about the history told at our historic sites. It is a case that has been made many times before, and a case that nonetheless bears repeating: "what a community erects on its historical landscape not only sums up its view of the past but also influences its possible futures.... What one generation puts on the landscape thus becomes a force imprisoning the minds of the generations that follow." To free these minds - or at least apprise them of their imprisonment - is for Loewen nothing less than the historian's moral imperative.
Loewen also provides a brief but informative introduction to how our historical landscape has been constructed: the politics, sociology, and economics behind the preservation and presentation of historic landmarks. This first section concludes with a compact discussion of historiography ("Historic Sites Are Always a Tale of Two Eras") and an equally succinct introduction to hieratic scale as a way of reading the physical features of an historic site. The result is a remarkably efficient and focused primer on how to be an informed consumer of roadside history.
Loewen is clearly aiming this introductory material at a popular audience, which is to say professional historians will find little here that is new. Indeed, he seems determined to make clear that he is not another black-turtleneck-wearing academic hack gleefully deconstructing America's treasured places. He wants a lay audience to recognize what is at stake in the construction of our historical landscape and to appreciate that efforts to get it right are not merely a conspiracy of "tenured radicals" and the "ashamed to be American crowd."
Given how badly such efforts to privilege interpretation over commemoration have fared in the past - one need only recall the battle over the National History Standards and several hyper-politicized museum exhibits in the early 1990s - Loewen might be considered a candidate for combat pay. To suggest that such monuments as Mt. Rushmore, Valley Forge, and the USS Intrepid effectively distort our history, that they are at times racist, sexist, and just plain wrong, is to invite the scorn and condemnation of upstanding members of Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and every other organization that has dedicated itself to evading the complex truths of American history. Yet Loewen maintains a populist tone throughout his book, avoiding the jargon and preachiness that, unfortunately, stands between many academic historians and their ephemeral public. Loewen even manages to write about race, gender, and class without sounding like he is repeating a mantra.
It is this common-sense populism that gives Loewen's book a good chance of reaching its audience. This is most apparent in the long second section, which comprises the bulk of the text. Organized in the manner of a travel guide, and moving west to east, this section takes us to historic sites in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine summer tourists carrying around a dog-eared copy of Loewen's book as they make their way from monument to monument. While not every site is problematic, each offers a compelling lesson in the making and meaning of our historical landscape. Loewen's evaluations of these sites are rich in detail, witty, and thoroughly convincing. He speaks with his readers rather than talking at them. As a guide he knows that his presentation must be both informative and engaging, and he consistently attains both. In short, few readers will find their eyes glossing over with boredom or be tempted to dismiss these portraits as more of the same old same old.
The 95 sites described in these nearly 400 pages need not be visited in any order. Loewen provides several indexes and numerous cross-references to keep us moving across the landscape on a variety of paths. A visitor might start with the delicious tale of Ralph Regula, the United States Representative from Canton, Ohio, who has, it appears, single-handedly derailed efforts to restore the name Denali to Alaska's egregiously misnamed Mt. McKinley. Everyone - including Alaska's congressional delegation - seems to agree that the original naming of the mountain after William McKinley was a joke that should now be undone. The perpetrator was one William Dickey, an itinerant explorer who stumbled upon Denali in 1896 while investigating reports of gold. Dickey renamed the mountain after the gentleman from Ohio, before McKinley had been elected president, as a gesture of defiance to those westerners who opposed McKinley's strict adherence to the gold standard. Congressman Regula, however, is determined to defend the honor of his hometown hero and, at least according to a member of his staff, to protect the investment of map makers who would have to update all of their products. I do not know if Rand McNally has corporate offices in Mr. Regina's district.
From this fairly enchanting story, the visitor might move on to more troubling destinations: Almo, Idaho, where a somber monument recalls the "horrible Indian massacre" of 300 pioneers, an event that never happened; the scores of sites throughout the South and West where the history of the Civil War has been badly mangled; Leadville, Colorado, where the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum all but ignores actual miners, and fails to devote any space to the violent labor wars that characterize the actual history of mining; or any of the countless sites that reveal shoddy thinking about Native Americans, slaves, non-WASP immigrants, and women. At some of these sites, to be sure, Loewen might be accused of picking nits, but the cumulative effect of all of these nits gathered together in one place is impressive. We might laugh, we might shake our heads in dismay, or we might seethe with righteous anger, but Loewen's catalogue of historical aberrations will not leave us unmoved.
The final section of the book is a brief treatise on how the historical landscape might be revised, a kind of "where do we go from here." Loewen reveals his populist sympathies - or his affinity for Edward Abbey - most deftly in his discussion of "snowplow revisionism," a term coined when an errant snowplow in Virginia demolished a monument marking the "Last Indian Outrage." Given the opportunity to revise this marker, the state chose to describe the site as the "Last Indian-Settler Conflict" while adding at least some context for the event. As Loewen slyly suggests, there is a pressing need for snowplows, mowing machines, and other means of providing public institutions with the opportunity to revise their historical landmarks. One can almost imagine a revitalized Sons of Liberty, made up of unemployed History Ph.D.s, roaming the landscape determined to set the record straight.
James Loewen is the tour guide we should all want on our bus. His book deserves, and should earn, a wide audience. Some ambitious producer at PBS or C-SPAN should sign Loewen up for a series, a Jim Hightower meets Charles Kuralt journey across America's historical landscape. Don't get me wrong: Lies Across America does not leave me feeling that the victory over historical obtuseness is at hand. Loewen exposes too many cases of arrogance and entrenched stupidity to merit such optimism. I found myself wishing evil things upon the Arizona official who assured Loewen that he would fight any effort to remove the word "squaw" from state historical markers. Perhaps signs are not the only things in need of errant snowplows. But then, I have always lacked the patience of a true populist.
Reflecting on the many frustrations that will confront those dedicated to improving our historical landscape, Loewen writes: "Maybe the United States will never become a truly just society - but we can constantly move our country toward becoming a truly just society." With or without snowplows, that is perhaps the best we can do, and James Loewen has helped give us direction.
Charles Mitchell is Associate Professor of American Studies at Elmira College in Elmira, NY He is the author of Individualism and Its Discontents: Appropriations of Emerson, 1880-1950, and is currently at work on a study of the traditions of American nature writing, Landscapes of Solitude, Landscapes of Belonging.…