Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “Why History Will Repay Your Love” (sorry–paywalled!) is an extended advertisement for David McCullough’s latest book, and only secondarily an advertisement for McCullough’s totally original observations about history and its importance. (Get this! John Adams and Thomas Jefferson lived in their present, not our past! Also, “nothing had to happen the way it happened,” and “knowing history will make you a better person.”)
I pretty much agree with all of McCullough’s bromides, but this one set off my B.S. detector:
We make more of the wicked than the great. The most-written about senator of the 20th century is Joe McCarthy. “Yet there is no biography of the Senator who had the backbone to stand up to him first–Margaret Chase Smith,” a Maine Republican who served for 24 years,
Could that possibly be true? I doubted it, especially because McCullough had written his 2001 biography of John Adams in immaculate ignorance of what one distinguished Abigail Adams scholar had called more than a decade earlier “the Abigail Industry.” In short, McCullough’s knowledge of women’s history and feminist scholarship runs the gamut from A to B, and it still doesn’t include anything on Abigail Adams.
So I immediately went to my university’s terrible new library catalog (which has ditched entirely the old card-catalog derived system of author/title/subject searches and is instead trying to compete with Google for boolean searches, and failing), and even that craptastic software for our minimalist collection of books turned up half a dozen bios of Smith published in the past two decades or so. (One was a juvenile biography, the rest were scholarly bios.) The period 1995-2004 was a rich period for MCS biographies, which were probably inspired by the turn-of-the-century frenzy to wrap up the twentieth century and put a bow on the package.
Why was all of this scholarship utterly invisible to McCullough? I wonder. I’m sure it’s because these books weren’t written by him or Doris Kearns Goodwin, and none of them were published by trade presses like Knopf or Doubleday, or even Basic, therefore they don’t exist. Also–they’re mostly feminist biographies, because (duh!) who else writes books about women, whether or not they ever identified as feminists?
There’s a rich irony here that the Great Historian of Great Men who is so desperately worried about the tragic ignorance of the Kids These Days can’t have bothered to enter “Margaret Chase Smith biography” at books.google.com. Noonan’s column begins with a story meant to flatter the convictions of the WSJ readership about the stupidity of youth today and their even dumber teachers and professors. She notes McCullough’s deep dismay that “a bright Missouri college student. . . thanked him for coming to the campus, because, she said, ‘until now I never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.’ Another student once asked him: ‘Aside from Harry Truman and John Adams, how many other presidents have you interviewed?'”
I’m betting that those of us who actually work with young people could tell stories like this–but that would be unkind and ungracious to those who trust us to work with them where they are and make them more informed and better readers and writers than when they walked into our classrooms the first time. I wonder how those students–if they actually exist–feel now being mocked in McCullough’s book and now the Wall Street Journal for (maybe) using the the word “interviewed” in his question instead of “written about?” Or who may have grown up in Missouri and never really thought about the history and geography of the Anglo-American Atlantic World before she got to college?
Increasingly, I feel like my charge–our charge as educators–is to serve and protect the young against the insults and arrogance of my peers and elders.
Perhaps it’s a good job McCullough never sullied himself as a classroom teacher or professor, because any professor or teacher who would mock students for venial intellectual sins like these is an obnoxious jerk. But we should not be surprised that McCullough acts like a jerk and a bully, because he writes the kinds of books that would lead us to believe he identifies strongly with the powerful and the privileged–mostly biographies of presidents and inventors.
As I write in my latest book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, “It’s better business to write about the rich and famous, because there’s already a built-in audience of book buyers for that latest biography of John Adams, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln [or one might add, Harry Truman or the Wright Brothers, &c.]. It’s easier and more fun for middle-class North American readers to identify with rich and powerful individuals rather than the victims of history. Schoolyard bullies know this instinctively: we all want to identify with winners instead of losers,” 10.
I’m sure the plutocrats who read the WSJ Weekend felt very satisfied with themselves after reading Noonan’s advertorial for McCullough’s book. (You can Google it yourself if you’re curious–this is an advertisement-free blog, so I won’t post a link to it.) We olds have to imagine ourselves superior to the young in some ways, because they have all of the beauty, strength, creativity, and optimism that we no longer have in great measure, because life beats most of that out of us by age 40 or 50. And time! Alas, they have all the time, and we–we don’t. We hear the clock’s insistent ticking. We can see the sand streaming to the bottom of the hour glass. We have knowledge, but knowledge isn’t wisdom if you’re using it as a weapon, or a marketing tool to sell your books to old snowflakes who want history as therapy, or as a flattering mirror rather than naked truth-telling.
The olds these days! If only we would learn some real history, it might eventually make us better people.