Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

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Loewen takes aim at monuments and historical sites, which together with museums are coming to be called "public history" -- as in history that the public actually encounters and contemplates.

James W. Loewen

Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne

Friday, June 29 2001, 9:10 AM


Public history is everywhere, often taking up our landscape in ways we don't ever notice. I work in a historic landmark building, the Cathedral of Learning. It's a 40-odd story skyscraper and apparently the second tallest building in the world dedicated to higher learning. On my way from my office to teach a course in Frick Arts Auditorium (named for a famous strikebreaker) -- just after I crossed Forbes Avenue (yes, that Forbes) I would pass a statue of songwriter Stephen Foster. Foster's a major historical figure around here. Not being into 19th century American music, I can only recall that he's credited with "Oh, Susanna." I don't know who put the statue up, but kneeling at Foster's feet is a smiling African American, apparently enraptured with Foster's musical skills. In fact, the statue has it backwards. Foster borrowed heavily from African American musical traditions, yet the statue celebrates Foster's creativity, not the creativity of his black colleagues.

For weeks I didn't notice this statue, until one day I had it pointed out to me. Public history surrounds us. In our own locales, we rarely think about it. When we travel, we rarely question it. James Loewen wants us to pay more attention.

Lies Across America occupied my bedstand for a good few months. With its short chapters and straight-ahead prose, it qualifies nicely as bedtime reading. But Loewen's book should be a wakeup call. Taking aim at monuments across America, he shows how historical sites distort the truth or give only a partial view of history. Lies Across America reads as a sequel to Loewen's well-known Lies My Teacher Told Me, where he takes apart the lies circulated in American History textbooks.

Loewen is taking aim at monuments and historical sites, which together with museums are coming to be called "public history" -- as in history that the public actually encounters and contemplates. As any academic historian will tell you, public history is a booming business these days. Besides offering an alternative career for History PhD's in a tight job market, public history has been fueled by movements like historical preservation that essentially recommercialize downtowns, and a resurgent corporate-philanthropic interest which is essentially commercializing museums from the Smithsonian to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the latter essentially being a VH-1 "Behind the Music" special in 3 dimensions). Apart from occasional blockbusters like Pearl Harbor and Titanic, public history is probably the way in which Americans most often encounter history.

This is why Loewen is so pissed off. And you will be too when you read this book. He reads like a cross between Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky: he's got Zinn's sense of history "from the bottom up" and Chomsky's sense for demystifying sacred American myths. A recurrent theme throughout the book is American racism. Native Americans are often portrayed as aggressors, as attested to by several monuments to massacres that never actually happened. African Americans are rarely memorialized, except as loyal slaves. Racist whites, on the other hand, do quite well. As Loewen explains, during the post-reconstruction period, there were many campaigns throughout the south to recast the history of the Civil War with the confederacy as a heroic project. From the 1890s on, monuments went up all over the south commemorating "loyal slaves," race riots by whites seeking to overturn local and state reconstructionist governments, and confederate leaders. For instance, there are at least nine state historical markers that commemorate the burning of Columbia, South Carolina during the Civil War. But while these markers portray the arson as a Union Army act (under General Sherman), it turns out that Columbia was actually burned by retreating confederate troops. Rather than being a symbol of Union aggression, Columbia was a casualty of the Confederacy's scorched earth policy. Similarly, a monument to the New Orleans White League honors an 1874 race riot where racist whites retook the city government.

Like African-Americans and abolitionists, left/labor groups take a beating in public history. As Loewen writes, "on today's landscape, [the] history of left-wing politics is almost invisible." Finn Hall marker in Cowlitz County, Washington portrays the hall as a cultural center where Finnish immigrants could preserve their heritage. In fact, it was built by a communist group whose translated name means "Comrades Society." The marker could tell a very interesting story about socialist, anarchist, and communist immigrants who left persecution in their own countries for the United States. In Centralia, Washington a monument to sentinel looks as if it commemorates World War I veterans. In fact, it memorializes American Legionaires killed in a confrontation with members of the Industrial Workers of the World. There is no similar monument to commemorate the Wobblies killed in the tragic skirmish.

When a woman appears on a monument, she is likely to be a "generic" female figure, standing for liberty, equality, or some other virtue. As Loewen writes, "Representations of real women from history are much less common that men, partly because so many monuments across the United States memorialize war. Many monuments that do not memorialize war overlook important real women for less important men.

Loewen takes a wide cross-section of monuments, writing a short essay on each. He discusses the history of the monument, what it says happened, and contrasts that with what really happened. It is an eye-opening book, not because we expect our monuments to tell the truth but because we so rarely think about how and why they are lying to us.

Upon finishing the book, I was struck by how much effort conservative forces have put into the telling of American history. The American Legion, the Daughters of the Confederacy, even the KKK have worked hard to tell their side of history in a straightforward way. They have lobbied city councils, run historic sites, and where necessary built their own. But as Loewen points out, more progressive groups have been much less involved in writing this kind of history. There's always a fan of the confederacy to staff a Civil War memorial. It's harder to find someone to tell the story of the abolitionists. Though he doesn't go this far, the book could be read as a call to action.

It's time to reclaim American history where it's most often encountered.

Lies Across America is available from Simon and Schuster 

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.
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