Useful Fictions, Part I - Historical Myths

In 1851 at the Akron Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth - a former slave and fiery speaker - spoke extemporaneously to the women and few men assembled there. The Anti-Slavery Bugle of Salem, Ohio, reported the event:

Sojourner TruthOne of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity:

May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am for woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint and a man a quart - why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much - for we won't take more than our pint will hold.
The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and there won't be so much trouble.

Frances GageTwelve years later, Frances Gage - a well-known reformer, abolitionist, and feminist in her own right - recounted the event somewhat differently. Gage was present at the convention, and was in fact the President to whom Truth addressed her initial request to speak. The version Gage recorded has become much better known, and is the one most often replicated, laminated, and recited when we speak of Truth today.

Several ministers attended the second day of the Woman's Rights Convention, and were not shy in voicing their opinion of man's superiority over women. One claimed "superior intellect", one spoke of the "manhood of Christ," and still another referred to the "sin of our first mother."
Suddenly, Sojourner Truth rose from her seat in the corner of the church.

"For God's sake, Mrs. Gage, don't let her speak!" half a dozen women whispered loudly, fearing that their cause would be mixed up with Abolition.

Sojourner walked to the podium and slowly took off her sunbonnet. Her six-foot frame towered over the audience. She began to speak in her deep, resonant voice: "Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter, I think between the Negroes of the South and the women of the North - all talking about rights - the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this talking about?"

Sojourner pointed to one of the ministers. "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain't I a woman?"

Sojourner raised herself to her full height. "Look at me! Look at my arm." She bared her right arm and flexed her powerful muscles. "I have plowed, I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain't I a woman?"

"I could work as much, and eat as much as man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain't I a woman?"

The women in the audience began to cheer wildly.

She pointed to another minister. "He talks about this thing in the head. What's that they call it?"

"Intellect," whispered a woman nearby.

"That's it, honey. What's intellect got to do with women's rights or black folks' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"

"That little man in black there! He says women can't have as much rights as men. ‘Cause Christ wasn't a woman. She stood with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. "Where did your Christ come from?"

"Where did your Christ come from?", she thundered again. "From God and a Woman! Man had nothing to do with him!"

The entire church now roared with deafening applause. 

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again. And now that they are asking to do it the men better let them."

How do we account for the difference?

There are a number of possibilities, but the most likely - and the one to which I subscribe - is that Gage had twelve years to tweak and rework the initial event in her mind and in her no doubt repeated discussions of it. Truth went on to be a recognized voice in both abolition and women's rights during that period, and gave innumerable speeches herself, many of which built on and varied the ideas she expressed in 1851. There was no video of the event, or prepared copies of the speech - the closest written version we have is that of the Bugle quoted above.

So was Gage lying? Did she just forget over time? I'm not convinced either of these need entirely be the case. I’d argue the key is found in that initial report from the Bugle:

It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her... listened to her...

I'm no expert on etymology, but I'm pretty sure this is the 1851 version of "you had to be there."

Sojourner Truth AgainMaybe it was impossible to transfer the effect to paper, but Gage could try. I submit that she altered the facts in order to capture the truth. Recounting the event was inadequate, so she revamped it in order to get closer to what actually happened experientially. In her mind, I believe, the most important element of Truth's speech that night was not the transcript, but the message and its impact.

Most of us have altered a few inconvenient facts here and there in order to make a point.  We even have a grammatical term for such things: hyperbole.

"I just about fell through the floor!" No you didn't, but I get how shocked you must have been. "I swear, I hit every red light between here and Ft. Worth!" Unlikely, but it does sound like a frustrating trip. Characters on TV behave rather melodramatically so we don't miss their meaning. If our real-life antagonist at work narrowed their eyes and scowled at us while dramatic music swelled behind them each time they were thinking something unpleasant about sweet, blameless us, it would be hard to know whether we should report them to HR or skip straight to contacting an exorcist. 

Often our memories help us out by actually altering the facts recalled in order to better fit the experience we had, good or bad. Great moments get better, bad moments get worse, embarrassing experiences grow more extreme, and our stories evolve each time we tell them.
And sometimes we just lie. But even those can offer interesting insights, once pondered.

These strange, not-entirely-factual accounts often illuminate important aspects of key events, or of ourselves processing these events, which are lost in the mere facts. Of course we must correct the inaccuracies - but first, let's look at why they resonate in the first place. What can we learn from some of history's most persistent nonsense?

The Stud Columbus & His Flat Earth

Christopher ColumbusChristopher Columbus has become a controversial figure in recent years. For some reason, the Native population of this grand land refuses to get overly excited about the man who first brought enslavement, disease, and near genocide to their ancestors. The basic mythology of his story has proven rather tenacious, however, even as his status as someone deserving their own holiday has come into dispute.

Columbus believed the world was round, everyone else thought it was flat. He seduced Queen Isabella, who gave him ships. He discovered the New World despite the mutinous mindset of his motley crew, and here we are. 

Most of you know this is all nonsense - long-discredited urban legends of the historical flavor. Every educated person knew the world was round; Columbus just thought it was much, much smaller than it actually is. His stubborn error made a little boating expedition to the Indies seem less insane. Once he landed in the New World, he stuck to his belief he'd found a route to the Far East or thereabouts, and held to this despite mounting evidence and minor annoyances like glaring reality - and clung to his delusion until he died.

Isabella granted the ships for her own reasons, largely political (imagine that), and if his crew bordered on mutiny it could be related to Columbus being a bit of a pompous ass who took credit for their work and damn near got them all killed several times.

So what makes the bogus, fabled version sticky in our national consciousness?

If America was (or is) a land chosen and blessed by God, perhaps it deserved a better 'birth' story than the deluded navigator who refused to believe he'd landed in the wrong place. It may be possible to reconcile a “City on a Hill” / “Manifest Destiny” / “White Man's Burden” mindset with the raping, pillaging, and enslaving of natives enabled by Columbus as soon as the first rowboat hit sand, but it's much easier to align those self-selected American attributes with a tale of enlightenment and progress (earth = round) overcoming a Middle Ages backwardness (earth = flat).

The idea of a leader able to abuse his underlings with impunity based primarily on his position (because the real boss put him in charge) seems a little too Koch Bros or Bill Lumbergh for our tastes. But a strong leader able to corral his motley crew through force of will... that's something we can at least admire - think Sam Houston or Will Riker. 

As to romancing the Queen, real Americans aren't wild about monarchy to begin with - combine that with a woman in charge (yes, I know Ferdinand was around, but Izzy had her own areas of sway – of which this was one) and maybe we needed a little role adjustment. A woman who uses her wiles to manipulate a powerful man is generally thought a 'whore', from the Latin root kardashian, while a male doing the same to get what he wants from a queen is a 'stud', or in the Latin, playaaa.

The information in the fabled version is false, but I respectfully suggest it reveals a great deal of truth about the events and our framing of them - a truth on which we base much bigger decisions than we do the facty version. Examining it matters.

Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address

Lincoln at GettysburgThis brief oration is arguably the most important speech of the 19th Century – maybe in all of American history. In approximately three minutes, President Lincoln deftly redefined the purpose and scope of the Civil War and charged his audience and all future Americans with the "great task remaining before us" of extending full American-ness to all people, as apparently both the Founders and the dead soldiers being commemorated that day had intended - although that would have come as news to many of them, had they been alive to hear it.

Setting that aside, it was a rather significant course adjustment in American history and one of the better things we've done along the way - building on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence rather than the pragmatism of the Constitution to expand democracy and some degree of equality from the few to the many. Sort of. Sometimes. In theory.

Lincoln did not compose this oration on the back of an envelope on the way to the ceremony. The very idea is completely out of keeping with his character and habits. If Lincoln were expected to speak somewhere, he prepared intensely, and well in advance. On those periodic occasions he was pressed to speak and had nothing ready, he made a few kind, humorous remarks, then explained he had nothing prepared, and rather than look silly, or misspeak, he'd say nothing. While details can be debated, multiple sources confirm his working and reworking of the speech in the weeks leading up to the event.

Sometimes added to the tale is that the previous speaker, Edward Everett, spoke for freakin' ever, presumably boring the funereal snot out of everyone as proven by the fact that no one's studying HIS speech 150 years later. Then… up steps Lincoln, three minutes of miracle, and boom - he drops the mike, throws a peace sign, and struts back onto the train.

What makes the envelope story and the idea that Everett was a drone while Lincoln killed it stick in our collective consciousness?

There's a certain spiritual, inspirational element to the idea that the speech just flowed naturally out of Lincoln's pen at the last metaphorical moment. Jesus told his followers in the Gospels not to worry about what they'd say, for the Spirit would provide the right words at the right time. All the way back to the Greeks, there's a certain mojo to following the Muse. 

Lincoln WritingLittle wonder, looking at this speech a masterpiece of imagery, language, and manipulation for the good of mankind, and in so few words - that we can almost SEE the white dove descending from heaven to whisper the words in Lincoln's ear. Less romantic is the idea that good writing - like good anything – is more often the product of years of effort, study, and practice.

Maybe from time to time Robert Plant wakes up in the middle of the night and can't help but scribble down the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven before the moment evaporates from his drug-addled mind, but most of the time songwriters write songs the normal way - they get an idea, a hook, a phrase, and work it and revise it until they're relatively happy with it. Even then, most aren’t masterpieces – but some are.

Mmmbop, badubadop bah dooom bop. Ba dooee-yah bah doo-bah, badooba dah badoo.  Can you tell me? You say you can - but you don’t know.

Sometimes things just fall into place, but most of the time some amount of working your ass off is involved. It makes the story less cool, but does not necessarily make the speech itself less inspired. Should it really detract from the accomplishment of this lil' oration that it was preceded by a revision or two, and a few decades of nights by the fireside reading his way into being able to think and speak with such efficacy?
Movies often fast-forward through the part where actual work and progress occur because those parts aren’t exciting to watch. That’s fine – admire the results. But don’t forget the montage.

Everett CelebrityEverett did indeed speak for somewhere around three hours, but that wasn't considered excessive, nor was it tiring to hear. This was a pre-Xbox, pre-Facebook, pre-RockfordFiles nation. Life was in many ways slower and oration was high entertainment when done well - and Everett was the Paul McCartney of speechifyin'. A bit on the long side of his peak, he was nevertheless legendary for leading the audience through whatever rhetorical journey he chose, and by all accounts that day he was a master.

It would be inconceivable today for the President to be at any event for which he was not the focus, but that was not the case in 1863. Lincoln's remarks were perhaps a bit briefer than anticipated, but he was never expected to be the main event. He was the after dinner mint of the affair, and the centrality of his three minutes only seems obvious in retrospect. Lincoln took a nation built on compromise and mired in war and lifted its vision back upwards, out of the clutter, and back to ideals perhaps even a bit grander than those of our Founders. The mythology which clings to the moment speaks to its importance.

The Assassination of JFK

The various conspiracy theories and alternative explanations for the death of our 35th President are fairly well-known, thanks to Oliver Stone, the interweb, and a recent X-Men movie. Rather than rehash them here, I'll rely on The Onion to summarize:

Onion JFK Assassination
Why the persistence of this, and the other ginormous conspiracy theories associated with every major big bad moment? 

There's something terrifying in the idea that in an instant, everything can change - we're taking our kid to the store when a drunk driver plows through an intersection, we wake up to go to work when some unknown dormant medical condition suddenly manifests, or the next petty criminal chooses our Kwiky-Mart to start shooting everyone. How much more threatening to our world paradigm that a lone weirdo like Lee Harvey Oswald could change the course of history with a few pulls of the trigger and the randomness of the universe in play? The very idea suggests an almost existential absurdity that makes one's soul hurt.

Nine Eleven MockeryThe idea that 9/11 was an inside job or that MLK was killed by the FBI is disturbing enough, but the alternatives are worse - that individuals or small groups of people, without the knowledge or control of those tasked with keeping us safe, did the worst of big bad things no one could anticipate or stop. We are creatures who want desperately to see order in our surroundings, and to claim some element of control over even the least controllable parts of our lives. A massive conspiracy by a large, powerful organization or sly government entity may be loathsome, but it's not quite so terrifying as the unpredictability of the alternatives.

The plethora and sometimes bizarre diversity of theories about JFK's death show us less about the events of November 1963 and more about ourselves and the stories we write and tell in order to give structure to our universe - and implied order to our future. They demonstrate that while perhaps we'd prefer to feel in charge ourselves, we'd at least like for SOMEONE to be in charge - even if that someone is a malicious entity working for their own ends. If there is order - even evil order - then we have some chance, some option or control in how to deal with that order. 

Without it, we’re confronted with existential or spiritual crisis on a level beyond my ability to tackle here. And no one wants that. Better the Jews did it. Or the Mafia. Or Aliens.

Our urban legends and historical mythologies resonate for a reason. I respectfully suggest it's worth paying more attention to those reasons, and to the potentially useful or provocative truths woven therein.

After that, of course, you can roll your eyes, look a bit put out, and begin to explain: "You know, that never actually happened..."

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part II - The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part III - Historical Fiction... Sort Of

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part IV - What's Your Story?

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part V - "Historical Fiction," Proper

Add new comment