American History
The Good Parts Version (Part One)

Hi reader. A couple notes before we begin.

First, I stole the expression "the good parts version" from William Goldman. I'm not above theft.

Secondly, I've never discovered a history. All I've done is read other people's historical accounts (who in turn were just reading another group of other people's accounts)1.

As people live their lives, they occasionally write things down. It's human nature. And what we're writing is the documentation that eventually becomes our history. Our ancestors have been doing this for a really long time (as far back as history can trace... exactly). And throughout this history, the historian's job is to read each generation's documentation, decide which parts are important, and summarize them. My job, in turn, is to read their summaries, and re-summarize them, making my own decisions about what is and isn't important.

Thirdly2, and lastly, I'm writing this specific summary to this specific audience: people who think Christopher Columbus discovered the United States of America aboard the Mayflower in 1492, proving that the world was in fact round.

If that sentence wasn't horribly offensive, you probably regard American history as a crushing bore, hardly worth the expense of your memory. And that's okay, because it usually is.

You know what else can be totally boring? Penetrating someone while wearing an executioner's mask. That can be just as dull.

"No it can't!"

Sure it can, reader. It's only exciting if it's done properly, with the right dose of aggression and domination. Otherwise, it's just boring. And unfortunately, when it comes to history, rarely is it taught properly (with the right dose of humor and illumination). And thus it's just as boring.

That doesn't mean I'm going to write American History: The Tabloid Version though.

Tabloid history is just as bad as dull history. Technically it's worse... because it doesn't even have the perk of accuracy.

For example, virtually everyone knows Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves. While this is interesting (and thus arresting as a tabloid), there's no evidence whatsoever that it's actually true. What's true is this: a slave - one - was impregnated by a Jefferson - one. But Thomas was not the only Jefferson. I feel this should be obvious. And no evidence has ever suggested Thomas was the Jefferson that impregnated her.

So while the heading is exciting, there's no story to follow. It's just not history.

Moreover, the things we think of as our history, like the sweeping era of cowboys and Indians, aren't really our history either. They're just our mascots. And we've maintained an unfortunate tendency to use these mascots as a representation of our heritage.

Granted, the Indians are real. But they're dull. The most exciting thing about American Indians is that they make really ugly shirts with airbrushed pictures of lightning, wolves, and chieftains. And then they sell them at pow-wows before spending the night in nylon tents.

And the cowboys - at least in the way we think of them - are nothing. They're not even real history. America simply didn't have any heroes (literary or otherwise). No Odysseus of Denver. Or Long Island dragons (Chinese people thought dragons were real; New Yorkers never did... at least post-puberty New Yorkers didn't).

We had none of this. All we had was Native Americans. And since European Americans didn't want their only mascot to be a celebration of their past as giant land burglars, they made up a louder, shinier batch of heroes: the gun-slinging cowboys from the Wild, Wild West. And then they manufactured stories about them as outlaws venturing across the open range.

While this obviously worked as a great distraction to the truth, I have no idea why anyone would have thought of it as exciting or romantic. Believability aside, dragons are way more exciting than a cattle drive. Plus they require a much more polychromatic imagination. Every cowboy movie ever filmed is captured in shades of brown. It's as if every one of them was meant to be viewed on an original Game Boy.

But the underlying point is this: cowboys aren't really big players in American History. From the 1860's into the 1880's there were a few of them and then that was it. One academic semester in Stockton, California produces more shootings and murders than did the whole era of cowboys across the entire land mass of the United States.

But even if this wasn't the case... Even if holster-wearing, speedy-fingered outlaws ruled the American range for a full century, who cares? It's not interesting.

I merit City Slickers an acceptable standing in Billy Crystal's cinematic portfolio, but it was fiction. All the non-fiction accounts produced by that pair of decades is unspeakably boring. And any historian who disagrees is clearly picking the wrong documentation to represent our otherwise entertaining history.

So this history lesson (i.e. The Good Parts Version) isn't going to delve into mascot history, tabloid history, and most importantly, boring history. I have no idea why anyone would ever want to read sixty pages of Civil War battle information. Granted, I also have no idea why anyone (i.e. people in the South) would ever want to reenact the Civil War's battles. But they do. And these are probably the exact people who think Christopher Columbus discovered the United States of America aboard the Mayflower in 1492, proving that the world was in fact round.

Thus, I'm writing to you, modern day Confederate actors. And anyone else with a sense of humor and a keen eye for the truth.


1) So far, my favorite summaries have come from people like Howard Zinn, Bill Bryson, and Kenneth Davis. Bill Bryson especially because he tends to talk about what history is not, rather than what it is. But all three of them pick the right documents (i.e. the interesting ones) to tell their story.

2) I promise to limit my use of firstlies, secondlies (etc), as I would otherwise feel compelled to reference Tchaikovsky, who loved them more deeply than any other member of documented history. And if I had a section on Tchaikovsky, I'd have to have a section on Russia. And Russian history is boring. It's just a bunch of caviar, vodka and snow. And obviously Tchaikovsky and Co. (Co. includes a couple pretty good novelists). Plus Russia was the subject of an off-handed comment by a contemporary American politician made famous on circumstance rather than merit. Other than that, I'll try to keep my historical narrative limited to the Americas.