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Essay

Telling History

By July 19, 2013 No Comments
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On the road yet again this week, this time in St. Louis for a conference on early American history. On the way down we stopped in Springfield, Illinois to take in the Lincoln sites. Not exactly at the top of my bucket list, but on BL 2, and in any case something every American historian ought to see. The Lincoln Presidential Museum, recently re-done to a patron-friendly T, is particularly striking, not just for what it would have us remember of the 16th president, but for how it thinks we’ll remember better—and for how it seeks to convince us that remembering is something worth doing.

The most obvious parts of the how are the techno whiz-bang that earned a lot of scorn from professional historians when first unveiled, but that does seem to grab the audience’s attention. Hologram figures walk out on stage in 3-D and talk to us about old Abe, about the fascinating qualities of historical sources, and about the importance of history. The wax-museum figures standing in the rotunda of the museum, in front of the log cabin or the White House, are dead-on life-like, so to speak. George McClellan’s arrogance is there for all to see, even if the hair-color of his interlocutor, U. S. Grant, is suspiciously fair. The docents are eager—maybe too eager—to answer your questions, even if you haven’t asked one yet. Traditional emotional reflexes are tripped when the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swell up as we consider Lincoln’s legacy. New-fangled presentism comes on extra heavy when the four candidates in the presidential race of 1860 appear in “Meet the Press” style, moderated by—yes, the late MTP moderator Tim Russert. And a cacophony of shouting voices assaults us as we walk through the Emancipation Proclamation display, two extremes berating the president for going too far or not nearly far enough with his measure.

So the importance of history is addressed head-on as well as by indirection, but more interestingly, with a bevy of answers that don’t sit entirely well with each other. Because it makes past people’s lives come to life. (The answer of curiosity.) Because we get to experience different lives besides our own. (Self-fulfillment.) Because (see shouting heads, above) they’re just like us. Because (exotic artifacts showing Old Technology) they are so entirely unlike us. Because Abe Lincoln shows the power of grit and determination in achieving one’s destiny. (Individual modeling.) Because the flag all those boys died for is our flag too, and must be carried forward through the strife of our life as they carried it forward on the battlefield so long ago. (Collective calling.) Not that any of these is wrong, or even unusual. It’s just striking to see the motley crew brought out so close together and under the same stovepipe hat.

Slavery gets its due at the Museum, and its due moral condemnation. But very little consideration beyond being a Very Bad Thing that somehow came to trouble a Good People devoted to Liberty and Opportunity. No mention of it being, for instance, a vital cog in the American economy at the time, or the critical ingredient in setting the grounds of admission in a polyglot Euro-immigrant society. (I’m/you’re not black.) And not a word addressed to the racism that was the chief warrant for slavery, and that lives on as its most powerful legacy. Trayvon Martin cannot be explained by the Lincoln Museum, but then the prosecution—the prosecution!—in the case insists that his killing was “not about race.” I guess they are just like us.

Call me a professional historian but I’ll take my artifacts original and in their native setting. I recommend the reconstructed Lincoln-Herndon law office or the Old Capitol building, where the chambers of both houses of the Illinois legislature, plus the Supreme Court chamber, plus the offices of the state treasurer and auditor and the library serving all of the above were housed in the same not-very-large building. An architectural demonstration of the scale of government—for that matter, of all corporate organization—then compared to now. And a scale that would be dramatically transformed in the first instance by the war that Lincoln set in motion.

No whiz-bang around these displays. Silence all the louder for just being there, ready to answer a question that you bring along. But that silence is loud and familiar of speech compared to the mute testimony of the most amazing monuments that Illinois might have to offer. On the banks of the Mississippi River, just across from St. Louis, are the mounds of Cahokia—at its peak in 1250 C.E., a city of 20,000 people, larger than contemporary London, and larger than any city in the future United States until Philadelphia around the War for Independence. In the 100-degree heat of the late afternoon we climbed to the top of the largest surviving mound, Monk’s Mound, its base some 90,000 square meters, its height rising to 100 feet. All built over centuries of labor out of dirt hauled up by hand, basket by basket. Not another sound is in the air as we gaze at the arch and skyscrapers of St. Louis shimmering up river through the haze. Just the smell of new-mown hay rapid drying in the scalding sun. Immense testimony to a time and people driven off by some environmental or political calamity that not even their labors or social organization or human sacrifices could divert or assuage. Unimaginably different from us. Or maybe much the same.

 

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