Every society has a set of myths it tells about itself. America is no different. These stories we tell shape public debate and our lives.
Now, a new book called America’s Myths: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past takes a closer look at some of the tall tales rooted in this country. Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, is one of the book’s co-editors. He spoke to the Texas Standard about “Mythical America”.
Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little more about your decision to assemble this book and co-edit with Kevin Cruz, a fellow historian at Princeton. Before we get to the myths themselves, what criteria did you, as co-editor, use to select what was included in the book?
Julian Zelizer: Well, part of it has been what we hear in the media about American history, arguments that have been widely circulated over the past few years. So we listened and read and tried to pick out some of the main themes and find some very good historians who could touch on them. And secondly, we looked for historians—not just topics—who wrote well, were serious about science, but who had a lot to say about issues like immigration, the role of government, or race relations that trouble Americans these days.
Is it about, generally speaking, the mythology of America, or is it about specific fact-finding on issues that pertain to the present – here and now?
A bit of both. We have common myths, such as the idea of American exceptionalism—the notion that America is fundamentally different from all other comparable countries. And we have a historian who takes up this myth. But we also have specific works. So, there is an article on the New Deal, which claims that it was not the New Deal, but the Second World War that brought us out of the depression. And he shows with facts and figures that in fact this is not true.
What did you and your colleagues at Princeton intend to do with this book? Are you trying to get people all on the same page? So much has been written about how facts no longer matter in contemporary political discourse. You don’t seem to buy it.
Yes, I mean, I think facts matter. I think scholarship and research makes a difference. And I don’t think we want everyone on the same page, but we at least wanted the debate to be based on the reality of what we know, based on something that is based on real research. So you can have a very serious discussion about “is government good or bad?” but we should at least have our facts about what government has been able to do in the past. That was our goal. And we also just wanted to showcase some of the really good historians who are writing in a way that the public finds accessible, and condense them into short, crisp snippets of what generations of historians have found on the subject, like immigration.
This issue of “presentism” – taking history and sort of making it relevant, or at least emphasizing its relevance to the present – has become a really big, almost existential part of the conversation between historians. And I’m wondering how you fit into it. You seem to be assuming that history plays a role in this modern conversation, but there are a lot of people who feel that presentism has taken over the field and that it might actually sow more distrust among some people who think, well, that’s what I believed. It’s a part of me and I’m invested. Call it a myth if you like.” But in what it means to be an American, for example.
Yeah. I mean, two separate questions. I think that all this debate about whether historians should write works or think about their work as far as it relates to the present time… These are old disputes. It was taken up again by the president of the profession. I think there is a role for those who want to connect those two dots. So presentism is just part of what historians do. And they have to be careful. They should focus on research. They must focus on data. But I’m comfortable with historians who want to think about these connections. And from the point of view of the myth, this is a separate issue. I mean, some myths have value. They may be desirable. They may be about things that unite us. But we must understand when these are myths. We don’t want to pretend it’s real and then have a twisted conversation about things that didn’t really happen.
Well, professor, one of the things that’s been remarkable, especially remarkable to many Americans, is how historians have brought up this notion that knowledge, what we call truth, is often the result of what others force silence – dispossession, seizure and so on. And that it was actually the historians who kind of said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, we have to challenge the prevailing historical narratives that the facts are not just neutral, they are not self-evident or irrefutable.” And now in these essays it seems that there is an attempt to define these facts as “this is what they really are.” How do you balance this?
Well, I think part of what you’re doing is expanding your analysis and your data, which means it doesn’t mean there wasn’t an American Revolution or there wasn’t an American Civil War. The point is that we need to understand much more than what happened in this period. We must study voices that are not recorded in many history books. And then we get a much more complete picture. And at the same time, we can have a very good debate about how you analyze all the facts that we have. So I don’t find it hard to square. I think it’s more about broadening the range of issues that we study, and we get a much deeper understanding of American history than a weaker one.
Where do these myths come from? Are they formed organically or do you think they are the result of some deliberate effort?
Some of them are organic, some have been with us for decades, and they are just part of what we think of the country. Some on purpose. I mean, I think part of what we’re arguing about is that over the last few years you’ve seen more effort, especially in the conservative media, to promote very partisan interpretations. I think our writers are taking on both, but historians should either disprove it or provide a better argument for us to understand what happened.
You know, there are people who claim, and this is supported by scientific research, that at the biological level, we are not programmed to look for the facts that we process. We can actually balk when we are presented with facts that contradict our own beliefs. What do you ultimately hope will happen after people read this book? And do you think that people who are not on the side of fact-based information will even spend time digging?
Well, there are people who won’t, and there are readers, I’m sure we can’t convince, who will never pick up a book. But I’m an optimist, and I still feel like there are a lot of people – readers and beyond – who just want to know more about the story. They may not agree on what to think about it. They may have a different opinion about what happened. But they want these debates to be based on real things. And I think with this book, we’re trying to be part of that way of talking about American history.