Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
Mitchell, Charles, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
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. …