Richard Shenkman’s History Series

My abiding love affair with history comes from where? Well, to tell you the truth I am not quite certain. I think it revolves around the idea that I like stories.

To me, the history of the world is just a series of stories about humanity – and what could be more interesting than stories about the way that humans act, think and evolve?

To the naturalist, the answer to that may be: Insects! To the Botanist: Plants! To the Astronomer: Stars! – and so forth and so on. But to me, the answer is that I am a writer and a scholar and Humans interest me deeply.

(Not to make myself sound like I am not one – which is a bad habit I have when discussing history or psychology. I’ll be telling a story or analyzing someone and realize I sound like I am a visitor from Mars, sent to study the earthlings.)

I am constantly awed by watching people’s instinct, perseverance, grace, differences, motivations and inventions. Humans create. Humans are capable of great destruction. Humans are always the same, but to contradict that, they are always evolving too.

The history we are taught in school is so dull and lifeless compared to the brilliance of the stories that teachers sometimes skip so they can summarize the centuries as briefly and simply as possible. I remember learning American history and being completely bored – from Columbus to the settlement of the West to Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War- yawn, yawn, yawn.

I soon decided I did not like American history because it lacked romantic things like Royalty and beheadings.

In college I took English history, Russian history, French history, Art history, Latin American history, and the history of Ancient Rome. I avoided North American history like the plague, until I realized that I was failing to see an important part of the big picture. Namely, my homeland.

All history is connected. I began to read some books on my own. I read about the gold rush of the 1880’s and prostitution in the old west. I read about the Civil War and – after years of not being interested in these correlating authors – finally got interested in Thoreau and Walt Whitman and Emerson.  I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History and am still reading Kenneth C. Davis – a man I swear knows absolutely everything. He’s this amazing example of what mere curiosity can achieve.

I learned that American history is actually pretty fascinating. In 400 years, we’ve built a government that has remained roughly the same – and that is a record when it is compared to the fact that every country on earth has had some kind of total revamp of their government or usurpation of the ruler or political coup d’état – but not us. We have had corruption in our system, certainly, and those of us that consider our ancestors European – well, our invading relations treated the Aboriginal people like objects – beginning by wiping out over 3 million of them in less than 20 years. (*see Zinn)

But even now, despite our current hot debate about immigration laws, we have the tradition of offering sanctuary and opportunity to millions. (Keeping in mind that most of our ancestors once sought sanctuary as well, of course, something that many of us seem to have forgotten these days.)

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883

Beautiful words that don’t seem to mean much anymore. But I think that if I were so short-sighted as to not find any thrill or romance in that, then I must be blind. The story of America is romantic. It may not have any Kings (only it does!) and it might not have much in the way of Roman ruins and stuff like that, but it has a lively and colorful history all its own, and it’s anything but dull.

Which brings me to Richard Shenkman.

Shenkman writes his little books and titles them with amusing titles that capture your imagination: Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History, I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not, One Night Stands With American History and so on. He also writes on world history, but for the most part, the books I own are all ’bout America, so that’s what I will refer to. Shenkman debunks rigidly held beliefs about our history. He shatters our illusions – if we have any – about the past and makes you laugh while he does it.

All those biased history channel programs about stuff like the shootout at the OK Corral and other legendary stories that are sorta’ designed to fill your head with only one side of the story and not give you the rest of the facts so that you can decide for yourself? (I really, really hate that crap – can you tell?) Well, Shenkman fills you in on the rest of the facts and, as a good, true historian will, often leaves you ambiguous about what really happened.

I dig Richard Shenkman. He was my first introduction to the fun of true history, and how interesting something can be when you go beyond the glossed over widely held beliefs you have been taught, instead choosing to root around for the real stories of human history.

To demonstrate, lets discuss the good ol’ American family. Or rather, Shenkman discusses family and our widely held belief system regarding it.


“There is the assumption for instance, that child-rearing has always been left up to the mothers. But according to recent studies of the family undertaken by Stanford University’s Carl Degler, child rearing in colonial times was mainly the job of the fathers. Until the early 1880’s child-rearing manuals were not even addressed to the mothers. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, when women had the economic freedom to devote themselves full-time to their offspring, that they began playing their familiar hearth and home role.”

“Another belief is that colonial Americans married much younger than people do today. In reality, demographic studies have now proved that they usually married in their mid to late twenties, just as now. So much for all the chatter about the delays in marriage supposedly brought on by the complications of modern life. It appears that Americans have a tradition of marrying late. Going to college and starting a career have little to do with the matter.”

“Divorce is not exactly a recent problem. In the late nineteenth century so many Americans divorced that the federal government decided it was a major social problem and undertook a study of the matter. In the 1880’s there were twenty-five thousand divorces a year, more divorces than in any other industrialized country. By the 1920’s, says Degler, American’s were divorcing almost as often as in the early 1960’s.

In any case, the increase in the divorce rate over the past century may not mean that marriages are worse, but only that Americans are more willing now – and more able – to bring unhappy marriages to an end.

…Court records show that the number of divorces began increasing in the nineteenth century, when women began to be treated as equals. Men started filing for divorce in large numbers when their wives refused to subordinate their own interests to their husbands.

One husband in 1870 even won a divorce because his wife refused to serve him breakfast.

“The fact is, despite the high rate of divorce, marriage remains as popular as ever, and proportionately more Americans get married nowadays than ever before. Just a century ago a full 10 percent of American women refused to marry. In the late nineteenth century Massachusetts 18 percent of the female population over fifty had never married. Today, however, almost everybody marries.”

Americans who are alarmed by the high rate of divorce often see it as a sign of a long-feared moral cataclysm brought on by the loss of old values and the failure of personal character. But the divorce rate has zigged and zagged so fast throughout American history it hardly seems reasonable to assign moral weight to it.

In the 1920’s it went up for a time; in the thirties it leveled off; in the forties, after the war, it went up again, before going down again in the fifties. It is hard to believe that morality has followed the same path. The dramatic rise in divorces after World War II,for example, seems directly tied to the willingness of couples to end marriages hastily entered into during the conflict. It seems to have little to do with any decline in morality.
Critics may say that even if the divorce rate doesn’t spring from a failure of national character, it has resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of single-parent homes. This just isn’t true, however. Children in America have often had to grow up in single-parent families.

In late seventeenth century Virginia, for instance, parents died so young that most children, during part of their growing years, were reared by just one parent, and more than a third lost both parents. In the nineteenth century death came so early that the proportion of families headed by a single parent was roughly the same as it is today. “It is quite true,” says Degler, “that the ending of marriage by death is different in many ways from an ending occasioned by divorce. Yet both have two important things in common. Both leave children with only a single parent, at least temporarily; both result in widespread incidence of combined or ‘blended’ families.” Such families are not new.”

Richard Shenkman
Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History


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