Bernard Bailyn starts his book The Peopling of British North America with an illuminating analogy about the rings of Saturn. When astronomers first noticed Saturn’s rings their beauty appeared as a shimmering uniformity. Now that technology has given us a closer look, we see that in fact, the “rings” are comprised of thousands of bits of rock and dust, some as big as your hand, some as big as a car, some almost microscopic.
History, he then argues, is often like this. From a distance things look easy to understand but get up close and the elegant simplicity and uniformity of the past dissipates into confusing bits that won’t go together. Reality will confound our ability to understand it as a coherent whole.
A lot about this analogy rings true for me. When young we learn that George Washington was the father of our country, a great leader, and so on. As we get older, we need to deal with his owning slaves, his social striving, his possible mixed motives for fighting the British, etc.
But ultimately historians can’t stop where Bailyn leaves off. After seeing what the rings of Saturn actually are, he/she then needs to find a way to have them make sense. He must interpret and synthesize. Bailyn’s book tantalizes at times with revealing details about early colonial settlement, but I found myself frustrated that the book never quite got off the ground.
The book shows us that settlement of the colonies happened seemingly without real pattern, aside from the obvious facts that most immigrants were young, male, from a middle-class or lower background. Different things seemed to happen for different reasons. In sifting through the data, Bailyn admits that it might take a a poet or impressionist painter to make sense of the disparate information. This is a wonderful admission of his, and seems to go against his “rings of Saturn” analogy. Bailyn admits that in this instance he can’t fulfill that role (though he did just this in his great Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). Interestingly, Bailyn contrasts the disparate design and feel of American settlements with new towns in Germany of the same period. In Germany, new towns all looked the same. So again, sometimes the rings of Saturn look exactly like we think they should look. It may be American history in particular, rather than History in general, that presents a unique picture.
Ultimately, of course, this must be Bailyn’s point. We might imagine the early days of European settlement to have uniformity, with diversity coming in the 19th century with large scale immigration, but no — from the earliest times no one story could account for everything. “Let us celebrate America’s diversity,” and all that.
I thought of Bailyn’s work while reflecting on 8th grade reactions to the history of the Roman Republic. In the year’s “Great Debate” over whether ancient Greece or Rome was the superior civilization, the boys invariably choose Rome by about a 2/3 margin, and the girls Greece by the same amount. Many years of teaching this class bear this out for me, so why might this be?
Though images of the ancient Greeks reveal a touch of brutishness, they had more feminine qualities than the Romans. They displayed more creativity and originality than the Romans. They appreciated beauty and proportion. As for the Romans, their plodding, methodical nature probably fits very easily within the mind of an 8th grade boy. Their lack of imagination and their pig-headed stubbornness may have been designed specifically to both infuriate their ancient opponents and the average modern 8th grade girl. I have seen a few young ladies actually stomp their feet in anger when Rome manages to rise after their disaster at Cannae, as the boys chuckle in Beavis and Butt-head like fashion. “We’re still here,” the Romans seem to be saying to Carthage, “dunking your pigtails in inkwells yet again.”
I can identify somewhat with this aggravation, but there is something magnificent about how the Romans embraced their sense of identity. The Roman scholar J.V.P.D. Balsdon makes the observation that the Roman origin story of Romulus and Remus raised by wolves had nothing to commend it to the ancient world. Apparently it would have been much better if they had been suckled by she-goats, as the Greeks did with Zeus. To what extent they truly believed in the myths I can’t say, but even a quick perusal of Rome’s stories show fratricide, violence, and no hint of elegance. The touching Greek story of Pygmalion carried no truck with the Romans. When they needed women, they simply stole them from the Sabines. Even when the Romans “invent” their stories (though I am not comfortable with that word, but like a typical guy I can’t think of a better one) they utterly lack imagination and adornment. And the Romans chuckle stupidly again. They’re perfectly happy with their unimaginative early history. Aggravating or no, their fierce sense of identity, no doubt gleaned partially from their commonly accepted founding mythology, gave them great strength of purpose and dedication. They knew they were a gritty, uncouth, blue collar bunch and reveled in it.
When discussing the Arthurian legend in his A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton made the comment that the “tradition” surrounding Arthur was more true than the “history” surrounding him. He meant that the Arthurian tradition may not be entirely accurate, but expressed more truth about the past than the confusion produced by historians who tackle the same subject. I think the same holds true for Rome. Take Will Durant (whom I like, for the record) in his Caesar and Christ, where he vaguely talks of Roman origins in terms of nomads from the steppes, and scraps of pottery dated to some people at some unsure time. This tells us nothing. No one should trust in the full accuracy of Livy’s history, but Livy communicates something more true about Rome’s early period than Durant.
If Chesterton is right we should consider his principle in light of America’s history. The newness of our country means that we can have far more accurate information about our past than almost any other civilization. For many of us, the stories we learned in elementary school no longer have persuasive power. Postmodernism has done its deconstructive work well. We see this in the words of the great jazz pianist Vijay Iyer who recently spoke at Yale, where he seemed to suggest that all success in America is somehow linked to exploitation (I hope I’m reading him incorrectly, as I like Iyer’s music and don’t want his name attached to something silly like this). Iyer commented,
And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.
Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.
Perhaps at least a few of those voted, “Most Likely to Succeed” actually worked hard?
But we need not fear or lament the postmodern landscape, but see an opportunity. We need to seek the truth, and the deconstructive project has helped us do that. But somewhere out there, I hope, is a historian who can give us a “true tradition” amidst the rings of Saturn to anchor us moving forward.