Sunday, March 27, 2011

American history isn't glamorous. So what?

Some in the literary world believe that our history is not the “stuff” of historical fiction. The reason: American history isn’t "glamorous.”

No Henry VIII with his seven wives. No Ann Boleyn, her beautiful neck poised on the guillotine. No grand palaces, the family of Louis XVI relegated to the dungeons of Versailles, the little Dauphin weeping. Our own revolution wasn’t “glorious” like the British revolution tin 1688 that gave the throne to King William and Queen Mary.

But we actually won our revolution, unlike the British. And, though we’ve never had princes, we’ve had more than our share of princely men: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin hung out in the courts of Paris, chased a bit of jupe, but he was also a man of science, world-renowned. They were great thinkers, these men…just read the Declaration of Independence (quiz: who was its principal author?)

Others Americans, too, I've discovered, are likewise intrigued by our “unglamorous” history.

When told that Benedict Arnold was actually a "hero" and that a woman might have been his undoing, comes the response "Tell me more."

When told that Canada almost became the 14th colony, but declined primarily for religious reasons: "I never knew this.”

And that the colonies invaded Canada in 1775. “Who knew?”

The abysmal failure of schools to teach history is well documented. Most Americans couldn’t even pass the basic citizenship test. (Try it: According to a recent Newsweek poll, 33 percent of us don’t when the Declaration of Independence announced. Duh, that long summer weekend, the firecrackers?

Writers can accomplish what teachers and textbooks apparently cannot: reveal the splendor of American history. Just look at the popularity of Pittsburgh-native David McCullough’s books. His "1776" details the suspenseful year when our rabble hung off the cliff of defeat, their odds almost zilch against an overwhelming military empire. His biography of John Adams, to me the most “boring” of the Founders, was a mega bestseller and later a popular mini-series on HBO.

John Adams’ wife, Abigail, was not a glamour puss like Ann Boleyn. But at least she kept her head!

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