There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days

Time for some legend-tweaking, some myth-interrogating, some eye-poking in the.

But while millions of colonists were accepting of slavery if not relaxed about it, millions of Britons back in the old country really were disgusted by it. And when slaves could choose whom to trust, they trusted Britannia.

So in the end it’s a poke in the eye for America?

“Yup. In the interests of truth,” he says.

Simon Schama, this is. He’s written a new book on – well, what it sounds like.

He’s grateful, he says, for Americans thirst for popular history – a thirst that can make “doorstoppers such as Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton beach reading for the summer”. But there’s a but, and it’s a big one. All these blockbusters (one thinks also of Stephen Ambrose’s boomingly titled The Victors, Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage) are “very coloured, in my view, by the wish for a pre-lapsarian past; (by the notion that) however much trouble we’ve been in since the civil war, there was once a place where America’s founding fathers were good, wise, strong, heroic, devoted to liberty and all of that”.

And by the wish for ‘the good war’ and for ‘the greatest generation’ and other cuddly items. Wishes of that kind do get in the way of truth. That happens.

Wrong sort of history for his esteemed colleagues to be writing, Schama reckons. Go back to Thucydides and the great cock-up theory of how we got to where we are. “It may have been low-key and Macaulay, not Carlisle, but that’s the greatness of the Western historical tradition. It’s not purely celebratory — in fact it began with unflinching self-criticism — so there is some sense of the virtue of party-pooping.”

There is indeed. Unflinching self-criticism is a good deal more likely to get at the truth than wishful thinking about pre-lapsarian pasts is. (Why? Because there is always something to criticise, whereas pre-lapsarian pasts don’t exist. And because wishful thinking distorts perception. That’s why.)

Schama was on Start the Week last week, talking about this book and being amusingly rude about Mel Gibson’s terrible mythic movie ‘The Patriot’ and about the decisiveness of Bush – ‘He’s decisive,’ Schama said acidly, ‘about doing whatever the last person he spoke to recommended.’

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