Rock Island, IL

To some of us it is a great relief that history is bunk. This is news that, had it reached us earlier, might have been as useful in grammar school as it is now. A boy thinking only of baseball could have benefited considerably from knowing that what took place in the courthouse at Appomattox in April of 1865 is bunk, or that the assassinations that set in motion the First World War, like the war itself, are also bunk.

But let us not underestimate the uses that accrue to us now. Not only are we under no compulsion to know anything about the distant past; we needn’t really even know anything about the present. If the Peloponnesian war, the iconoclast controversy, Stalin’s artificial famine, Joseph’s real one, the trail of tears, and the Reformation are all bunk, think of how bunkish all the more recent events that haven’t had a chance to be bunk for very long are going to be when, after the due passage of time, they qualify for what used to be called “history” before Mr. Henry Ford renamed it. The Iraq war, Halliburton, Kentucky’s exile to the N.I.T. (and a first-round loss): serious bunkitude, dude.

Yes, indeed. Except maybe for the true giants of the academy who haven’t got the word yet—I mean the historians—the Ford doctrine is very liberating. Life is a lot easier for a lot of people now. I think maybe we can all breathe that same sigh of relief the philosophers breathed after the death of God.

But it’s not as if there’s nothing to be done with all that old stuff. Even the old cabinets you tear out of your kitchen can be rehung in the garage or the barn and used for hiding nails and grease guns and nozzles. The original purpose of history—to provide knowable things for contestants on Jeopardy—needn’t yield no other purpose in its decline and desuetude.

Hawthorne certainly thought as much. Looking back at what he called that “curious history of the early settlement of Mount Wollaston, or Merry Mount,” about which William Bradford and Thomas Morton wrote somewhat, ah, differing accounts, Hawthorne noticed “an admirable foundation for a philosophic romance.” “The facts [of that curious history],” he said, “recorded on the grave pages of our New England annalists, have wrought themselves, almost spontaneously, into a sort of allegory,” an allegory known to us now as a tale of the 1830s titled “The Maypole of Merrymount.”

But the facts (as Hawthorne called them) of that little episode are bunk, and Hawthorne knew it. Not, mind you, in the sense that we know them to be bunk now that we have such clarifying terms as “the Other” to help us understand cultural conflict, but he knew them to be bunk nonetheless.

So in true Hawthorne fashion he slips into allegory. He hovers above the bunk of historical detail. He does away with what Morton in his account calls the “precise separatists.” No need for such precision, whether as a historian or a separatist. Hawthorne settles for the general term “Puritans”: men and women making up a “stern band” that came to the new world not to trade, not to seek riches, not to explore, not to frolic, but “to pray.”

Their enemies, the revelers of Merrymount, who brought with them “all the hereditary pastimes of Old England” and the Book of Common Prayer and who were “discountenanced by the rapid growth of Puritanism,” are likewise not restricted by the bunk of detail.

Their leaders were men who had sported so long with life, that when Thought and Wisdom came, even these unwelcome guests were led astray by the crowd of vanities which they should have put to flight. Erring Thought and perverted Wisdom were made to put on masques, and play the fool. The men of whom we speak, after losing the heart’s fresh gayety, imagined a wild philosophy of pleasure, and came hither to act out their latest day-dream. . . . Many had been maddened by their previous troubles into a gay despair; others were as madly gay in the flush of youth, like the May Lord and his Lady; but whatever might be the quality of their mirth, old and young were gay at Merry Mount. The young deemed themselves happy. The elder spirits, if they knew that mirth was but the counterfeit of happiness, yet followed the false shadow willfully, because at least her garments glittered brightest. Sworn triflers of a lifetime, they would not venture among the sober truths of life not even to be truly blest.

It is clear Hawthorne doesn’t give two hoots about accuracy. He doesn’t give a deuce for the “real” Thomas Morton or Miles Standish or Captain Endicott or anyone else for that matter. He’s working by exaggeration, by stock, by caricature. He doesn’t care who provoked whom. For him something other than bunk is at stake. Two ideas about the human person and about American life—perhaps even about Life—are at war. “Jollity and gloom,” his narrator says, “were contending for an empire.” I’ll not summarize the tale—Hawthorne is better read than summarized—but I will say that, not surprisingly, jollity proves in the end to be too weak. “As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gayety, even so was [the May Lord and his Lady’s] home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest.”

Interestingly enough, part-way through the story the narrator parts with a little remark that clarifies something of the veiled purpose: “The future complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel.” We might as well get a pink ribbon floating down from the sky at this point (though we don’t).

You can read the “history” of this whole affair and try to sort out what actually did and didn’t happen, and I do this now and again in moments of weakness, or you can risk watching the History channel, which, lacking access, I don’t do, but all you’d be doing is feeding on the bunk written by the giants of the academy who haven’t yet received the memo. And none of it will tell you what people are for. To figure that out you have to take Hawthorne’s approach.

Lucky for us Bradford, in his account (titled Of Plymouth Plantation), gives us an opportunity to do just that.

Bradford complains at length about his enemy Thomas Morton, the Lord of Misrule, who with his consort of revelers “maintained (as it were) a School of Atheism.” The complaint has much to do with certain business practices that result in Indians armed with guns.

And having thus instructed them, he employed some of them to hunt and fowl for him, so as they became far more active in t hat employment than any of the English, by reason of their swiftness of foot and nimbleness of body, being also quicksighted and by continual exercise well knowing the haunts and all sorts of game. So as when they saw the execution that a piece would do, and the benefit that might come by the same, they became mad (as it were) after them and would not stick to give any price they could attain to for them; accounting their bows and arrows but baubles in comparison of them.

Though Bradford is interested in how “the country could not bear the injury” of Morton and his pagan Anglicans, he seems, by his own account, to be more worried about the villainy by which transplanted Europeans die at the hands of Indians whom Morton has furnished with European fowling pieces. In other words, he’s interested in moral outrage, or in “history” such as he conceives it, or in something I haven’t heard or thought of, but certainly not in philosophic romance.

Anyone uninterested in bunk might notice the “allegory” suggested here (I’m using the term pretty loosely), or at least the irony: in the effort to enrich yourself you can usher in your own demise, just as an animal incapable of calculating the carrying-capacity of its habitat can starve itself by eating too much (which men and women can do too, and are doing). But that seems to have been lost on Bradford; nor did it catch Hawthorne’s attention. Hawthorne was interested, perhaps predictably, perhaps quite properly, in the moral gloom, not the irony. The bunk he saw arranged itself into a different sort of allegory.

But what catches my eye each time I’m flipping through Bradford’s account of the events of 1628 is this sentence: “So as when [the Indians] saw the execution that a piece would do, and the benefit that might come by the same, they became mad (as it were) after them and would not stick to give any price they could attain to for them; accounting their bows and arrows but baubles in comparison of them.”

And, each time, I am tempted to sit down and write a little head note in imitation of Hawthorne:

There is an admirable foundation for a philosophic romance in the curious history of the small trading post north of Plymouth Plantation. In the slight sketch here attempted, the facts, recorded in the grave pages of that New England historian, William Bradford, have wrought themselves, almost spontaneously, into a sort of allegory.

But I would be less interested in the moral gloom than in the introduction of the new technology and its effects on the people of a given place. That the bows and arrows are accounted mere baubles compared to the guns would mean at least three things for my philosophic romance or allegory: one, the old thing is on its way out; two, the skills needed for using the old thing are on their way out; three, there is a kind of frenzy, perhaps inevitable, for the new thing: “they became mad (as it were) after them and would not stick to give any price they could attain to for them.”

(Hit “hyperspace,” and you see Indians camped out outside Gander Mountain at midnight awaiting the release of Fowling Piece 3.0, their children across the vast parking lots and five-lane carriageway lined up outside Best Buy on Black Friday. How we become mad for the new thing!)

Somewhere in the little allegory there would be a sentence not about how jollity and gloom were contending for an empire, for the question of empire would seem forgone, but about how the country was being settled and unsettled, both at the same time.

(Hit “hyperspace,” and you see jollity and gloom and all the other dispositions toward life a man or women might have flattened by the steamroller of retail. How shopping obliterates thickness and difference!)

This simultaneous settling and unsettling reminds me of something not unrelated in Bernard DeVoto’s The Course of Empire : “The first belt-knife given by a European to an Indian was a portent as great as the cloud that mushroomed over Hiroshima. . . . Instantly the man of 6000 B.C. was bound fast to a way of life that had developed seven and a half millennia beyond his own. He began to live better and he began to die.”

Devoto speaks of the principal trade goods, including weapons and alcohol, that “affected every aspect of Indian life. The struggle for existence . . . became easier. Immemorial handicrafts grew obsolescent, then obsolete. Methods of hunting were transformed” and so on and so on and so on. “It the sum it was cataclysmic.”

All of this is quoted in Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America. Berry borrows extensively from Devoto, he says, because, “obvious differences aside, he is so clearly describing a revolution that did not stop with the subjugation of the Indians, but went on to impose substantially the same catastrophe upon the small farms and the farm communities, upon the shops of small local tradesmen of all sorts” and so on and so on and so on. “It is a revolution that is still going on. The economy is still substantially that of the fur trade, still based on the same general kinds of commercial items,” including weapons and drugs.

Berry points out what I gestured toward above when I mentioned the replacement of the old thing and the displacement of the skills required to use it: “the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life.”

In other words, Morton is alive and well—and his hawking techniques have improved. But what I really wish to draw attention to is the use Berry makes of all that bunk borrowed from DeVoto: “Commercial conquest,” Berry says, “is far more thorough and final than military defeat. The Indian became a redskin, not by loss in battle, but by accepting a dependence on traders that made necessities of industrial goods. This is not merely history. It is a parable.”

Oh, I wouldn’t abuse the giants of the academy—I mean the historians—for not knowing that history is bunk. And, truth be told, I’m not in much of a mood to agree with Mr. Henry Ford anyway. The work of historians can certainly be useful. It’s just that sometimes you do well to read history as philosophic romance, or allegory, or parable.

Then, should you ever become a contestant in a beauty pageant, you can at least give a new answer to the question, “why read history?”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

avatar Michael J. Sauter March 20, 2013 at 11:50 am

Great piece. Reminds me, in many ways, of Philip Rieff’s description of barbarism: “Barbarism is not some primitive technology and naïve cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past.”

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: