Monday, December 29, 2008

Telling It Right

First, of course, let me wish that everyone has had a happy holiday season so far. I enjoy the holidays because I can usually find some time to knock down my reading pile a bit. This is especially true this year with the snow storm we’ve been having in Seattle.

I have a theme that’s been running through my mind the past few days. I’m beginning to realize that there might not be one true version of a historical event. There is a fuzzy area out there that separates what is true and what is not, sometimes depending solely on perspective.

Of course we all know what is true. A known series of events, for example, or some other facts like names, numbers, etc. But how do we know it’s true? Well, we have to trust the source. But keep an open mind. Here’s an example:

I had posted on a history of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. One of the sources I used for this summary history had credited the coining of the Brigade’s nickname of “The Herd” to the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. I was contacted by a veteran who was in the 1st Battalion, who credits Colonel “Rawhide” Boland, his commander at the time, with coming up with the nickname. (Read the quote and history here) There is no choice here. When the only sources you have are an undocumented article on a website and an oral history from someone who was there, go with the in-person witness.

On the other end of the spectrum you have people who make things up. Hopefully, we can catch the untruths before they get absorbed into the historical record. I saw a great example of this in today’s New York Times. The article is worth your time to read. Unfortunately Oprah has been fooled again. It seems that Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust tale of his future wife tossing apples to him over the fence is not true. Fortunately, in this case other survivors and Holocaust researchers outed Mr. Rosenblat. While he is a Holocaust survivor, he felt he needed to spice up his memoir a bit and, like these things are wont to, the story ran away with the Rosenblats in tow. My point is not to judge this case specifically, but to show how some stories just need another source. Somewhere between my two examples is that gray area.

I just finished reading Tony Horwitz’ A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. (4.5 stars on Amazon, and I personally give it two thumbs up.) Part history and part travel narrative, Horwitz travels the country to learn about the founders of America from Columbus through the Plymouth Colony and Jamestown. It’s a fascinating and entertaining read. What struck me was how people around the country would usurp history to fit their political/ethnic agenda or even to simply further the local economy. Read the book and you might be amazed to find out that Ponce de León never looked for a “Fountain of Youth” but if you go to St Augustine (where the Conquistador never went) you’re likely to be offered a paper cup full of water. How many of us are dead certain that many of these types of historical mythology are true?

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