Every society has a set of myths about itself. America is no different. These stories we tell shape our public discourse and our lives.
Now, a new book called Myth America: Historians Tell the Biggest Myths and Lies About Our Past takes a closer look at some of the tall tales that have taken root in this country. Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, is one of the book’s editors. He spoke to The Texas Standard about “Myth 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 put together this book, co-edited with fellow Princeton historian Kevin Kruse. Before getting into the myths themselves, what criteria did you use as co-editor to select what went into the book?
Julian Zelizer: Part of it was what I heard in the media about American history, an argument that had gained a lot of currency in the last few years. So we listened, we read, and we tried to find some very good historians who could pick out some key themes and address them. Second, we looked for historians—not just subjects—who write well, are serious about scholarship, but have something to say about issues like immigration or government or the role of race relations in Americans today.
Broadly speaking, are we talking about American mythology, or about finding specific facts about issues related to the present – the here and now?
A bit of both. We have pervasive 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 got that myth. But we also have specific parts. So the New Testament contains the idea that World War II brought us out of the Depression, not the New Deal. And he shows, through facts and figures, that this is actually not true.
What did you and your colleagues at Princeton intend to do with this book? Are you trying to get everyone on the same page? Much has been written about how facts no longer matter in contemporary political discourse. You don’t seem to buy that.
Well, I think facts are important. I think scholarship and research are important. I don’t think we want everyone to be on the same page, but we want the debate to at least be based on real research based on what we know. So you ask “is government good or bad?” you can have a heated debate about, but we should at least establish the facts about what the government has been able to do so far. So that was our ambition. We also wanted to highlight some really great historians who write in ways that we think are accessible to the public, and bring them together in short, concise pieces of what generations of historians have found on a particular issue, like immigration.
This issue of “presentism”—taking history and making it relevant, or at least emphasizing its relevance to the present—has become a really big, almost existential, part of the conversation among historians. And I wonder where you stand on this. You say that history has a role to play in this modern conversation, but many people feel that presentism has taken over the field, and that can actually foster skepticism among some people: Well, that’s what I believe. It’s part of who I am and I’m investing. Call it a myth if you want.” But what does it mean to be an American, for example.
Yes i do. I mean, two different issues. I think the debate is whether historians should write work or think of their work as relevant to the present… It’s an old debate. It was raised again by the president of the profession. I think there is a role for those who want to connect those two points. Thus, presentism is part of the mix of historians. And they should be careful. They should focus on research. They need to focus on data. But I love historians who want to think about those connections. As for the myth, this is a separate issue. I mean, some myths have merit. They can be ambitious. They can be about the things that bring us together. But we need to understand when they are myths. We don’t want to pretend they’re true and then talk about things that aren’t actually true.
Professor, one of the most remarkable things for most Americans is how historians bring to the table this concept, the knowledge we call truth, which is often the result of silencing others. expropriation, mining, other things. In fact, historians have said “wait a minute, wait a minute, we need to challenge dominant historical narratives, facts are not just neutral, they are self-evident or indisputable.” Now these essays seem to attempt to clarify these facts as “really so”. How do you square that?
I think part of what you’re doing is expanding your analysis and expanding your data, which is not to say that the American Revolution didn’t happen or the American Civil War didn’t happen. Most importantly, we need to understand more about what happened at a particular time. We need to explore voices that are not recorded in many history books. Then we get a much more complete picture. At the same time, we can have a really good debate about how you analyze all the facts we have. Therefore, the square is not difficult for me. I think it’s just a broadening of the kinds of issues we’re studying, and we have a much stronger understanding of American history, not a weaker one.
Where do these myths come from? Do they appear organically or are they the result of some deliberate effort as you see them?
Some are organic, some have been with us for decades and are simply part of how we think about our country. Some are intentional. I mean, I think part of what we’re arguing about is that in the last few years, you’ve seen more efforts to push very partisan interpretations, particularly in the conservative media. I think our authors acknowledge both, but they are the kinds of things that historians have to step back or make a better argument to understand what happened.
You know, some people do, and it’s backed up by scientific research, and it’s not hard to look up the facts that we’re working on at the biological level. We may present facts that contradict our beliefs. What do you hope people will do after reading this book? And do you think people who are not on the side of factual information will even take the time to dig?
Well, there are some people, and there are some readers, I’m sure, we can’t convince them, they’ll never pick up the book. But I am an optimist and I feel that there are still many people who want to know more about history. They may not agree on what to think about it. They may have a different perspective on what happened. But they want to base these arguments on real things. I think with this book we are trying to be part of the discussion of American history.