THESE ARE the best kind of books: thought-provoking.
The question of agreement is secondary, perhaps even incidental. The purpose of serious history, as Henry Adams understood, is to help us in our labor of "learning to see," of developing the ability to make decisions "not at haphazard, but by choice." Ray Allan Billington and James Oliver Robertson do just that.
In Land of Savagery, Land of Promise Billington gives us an impressive review of how Europeans have viewed the United States. It is a straightforward report on a massive research project designed and directed by Billington. Classic traditional History: who, what, when, and where. But one cannot do that kind of history without some principle of organization. Billington offers this pattern: Good America and Bad America. The pundits and others that he calls the image makers appear to have discovered the cyclical pattern of American history long before Arthur M. Scheslinger Jr. borrowed it from his father.
Consider a random sample of chapter headings: "The Image-Makers: Land of Promise"; "Native Americans: From Noble to Ignoble Savagery"; "Land of Equality"; "Land of Savagery." Or his descriptions of what Europeans found in America: a "slightly improved verson of the Garden of Eden," an "idyllis wonderland." And then what they began to think of the American frontiersmen: "heartless predators, stripping a defenseless minority of its birthright."
Billington is working with the truth noted by Karl Marx and Lord Keynes. Ideas, images deeply influence our behaviour. The image of the frontier bespeaks what Frederick Jackson Turner called our urge to escape reality. That does not make us unique. All peoples seek a better world. Yet we Americans do seem terribly reluctant to face the truth that reality out there is no different from reality in here.
I wish Billington had been bolder: had said simply that the frontier is no different than the metropolis. We can be good or bad in any environment. In the end it is not a matter of images or geography -- it is what we do, how we act. Hence Francis Jennings' The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest should be read along with Billington. We did destroy the indigenous cultures of America. We did systematically infect a hemisphere with racist slavery.
It is not just a matter of history. We live every day and night with the consequences of those actions. We do not like that. We have never come to terms with Vietnam (let alone the Philippines) or Watergate because we have never come to terms with the images of "The only good Injun is a dead Injun," and "The only good Nigger is a slave." We prefer, as with Iran, to talk on and on about the barbarism of other peoples. Our bravery does not include looking in the mirror.
Now as Frederick Jackson Turner understood, the purpose and function of myth is to enable a culture to look in the mirror without flinching. To accept the failure of success and go on to the success inherent in failure. Myth is the word we use for our sense of failure and renewal. If we deny that truth we die.
Robertson, in American Myth, American Reality , is working with that paradox. He has the nerve to ask the troublesome question. And he is very good, truly exciting and exceptional, on how our forefathers rationalized their right to take over a continent populated by other human beings who had created functioning cultures. But then he goes soft. The book drifts off into character traits, cowboys, sex and hard-hats. It is like reading your notes from a Sociology course. And I fear, too many History 1 courses.
There is too much talk these days about students being too cocerned with getting jobs to have time for taking history courses. Now in truth good history courses not only help you get jobs, they help you get better jobs. Good history courses deal with the central issues -- as Henry Adams said: "learning to see," learning to make decisions "not at haphazard, but by choice." And Robertson knows that trugh and comes back to it with verve and flair.
Near the end he settles in to talk about war: the American image and myth and reality of war. And he is deadly accurate. For Americans, he argues, war is at once unity, creative, destructive, and marginal. Simply beautiful. He has in truth pinned us to the wall. War for Americans is "progressive, eveil, and parenthetical -- all at the same time." But on balance progressive.
I may be wrong, but I have the feeling that Robertson is trying to invest history with the power of regeneration. So we come back to the essence of myth. Myth is the way a culture accepts defeat and goes on to become creative.
Notice i did not say: go on to win . Winning, like happiness, is a by-product of being creative. Of doing good things -- regardless.
In their different ways, Billington and Robertson are trying to help us take a deep breath, think-it-over, and become creative.
I like their faith in us.