Bad history squeezes out good

I went searching yesterday for a quote from H.L. Mencken on the Gettysburg address, and found it, but found much more as well. Here is the quote I wanted:

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

There is a Gresham’s Law at work in history, it seems, in that bad historians squeeze out good ones. For every William Blum there are twenty Doris Goodman Kearns Goodwin, the latter raised to prominence because her Team of Rivals meme was useful for Obama’s handlers, who were about to replace old scoundrels with new ones.

The backwardness of the art of biography in These States is made shiningly visible by the fact that we have yet to see a first-rate life of either Lincoln or Whitman. Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under aimageny circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln.

Lincoln has been Spielbergered over the decades, and made into a statue. The whole of the Civil War has been turned into a morality tale, and where slavery was but a side issue in a great debate over tariffs and agriculture versus industry, the carnage that Lincoln’s perhaps far-seeing tyranny yielded had to be scrubbed clean. So the Civil War became the morally superior north bringing its less enlightened southern brethren into line. In the process, Lincoln was lionized.

I’d like to know more about Lincoln, just as I would JFK, Nixon and McKinley, men removed from office under seamy circumstances. Maybe they are villains, maybe just men, but they seem to be highly intelligent men, unusual for that office.

Perhaps the same can be said for Lincoln, if only Goodwin and Spielberg would fade into the background and let real historians do their work. Do we have any?

About Mark Tokarski

Just a man who likes to read, argue, and occasionally be surprised.
This entry was posted in History, History as it is rewritten. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bad history squeezes out good

  1. Jeff says:

    Are you circling back to conservative mythology now? That hurts your conversion/awakening/whatever narrative, you know.

    Like

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