No doubt the leaders of the free and industrialized world have had a whale of a time during their long holiday weekend at Colonial Williamsburg. Certainly they chose an appropriate spot for their maunderings, for the connection between Colonial Williamsburg and historical reality is approximately the same as the connection between contemporary political leaders and real life: nonexistent.
Colonial Williamsburg is the Disney World of the American past. To stroll down its meticulously groomed byways or to sup at its calculatedly chummy taverns is to disappear into a world that, our most ardent fantasies notwithstanding, never was. For all the patina of "historical authenticity" with which Williamsburg has been fancied up, at its core it is as phony as those underwater "boulders" at Disney World that turn out, upon close inspection, to have been manufactured from a material bearing a suspicious resemblance to Styrofoam.
To be sure, precisely for this reason there is something quite apt in the selection of Williamsburg as the spot at which to treat the high panjandri of the civilized world to an orgy of "Americana." Given the choice between the ersatz and the authentic, Americans will zero in with unerring instinct on the ersatz. In a country where image carries greater weight than actuality, where the recital of ingredients on a can of "soup" reads as if it were a shopping list for the military-industrial complex, where the highest elected official took his intellectual apprenticeship in the celluloid land of make-believe--in such a country, Colonial Williamsburg is an all-too-appropriate expression of the national ethos.
Williamsburg is not, as it is represented to be, the past; it is a reconstruction of the past as we wish it to have been, complete with all modern conveniences. If only Mickey and Minnie were there, prancing down the stairs of the Governor's Palace and crooning "It's a Small World," Williamsburg would embrace within its tidy boundaries just about everything that simultaneously exploits and debases our hard, painful history. For the benefit of the contemporary visitor, whether he be a socialist French president or a reactionary American tourist, Williamsburg presents an Olde America that has been sanitized beyond recognition by all save those whose spectacles are tinted rose.
In a word, Williamsburg is cute--in just the same artificial, cloying, idealized way that the town square in Disney World is cute. It's so darn cute 'n' quaint that you just want to hug everyone and everything you see: the mechanically dulcet-voiced women in their Colonial dresses and bonnets who hustle you along from one attraction to another; the sturdy laborers and craftsmen in their breeches and aprons who make merry tunes on the smithy's anvil; the immaculate little houses snuggled up in their adorable rows; the majestic Capitol with its spit-'n'-polish fixtures and its guides in gleaming livery and powdered wigs. It's all so, well, historic that it just makes you proud to be an American.
It's called a "historic preservation area," which is a joke. Williamsburg is actually a theme park, the theme being that Olde America was as pretty and as peaceable as a picture on a postcard. Williamsburg is engaged not in preserving and restoring but in prettifying and mythologizing. No sewage or human waste befouls its water, though most surely both did two and a half centuries ago in the Williamsburg we now "preserve"; no disease or epidemic darkens its air, though these were constant terrors of 18th-century life; no hint of crippling injury or premature death discolors the bright countenances of the costumed "residents," though these, too, were constants.
The trouble with Williamsburg is not that it lacks authenticity of this unpleasant sort--presumably not even the most literal-minded preservationist would subject the poor tourist to sewage in the gutters--but that it represents its idyllic townscape as the living past; one of its more hyperbolic publications describes it as "no dusty museum of the dead past, but rather a vividly re-created community, flourishing and alive," and that is the company line. It must be conceded that Williamsburg is a pretty place to visit and the food in its restaurants is, at its best, very good indeed; but it's an America-the-Beautiful theme park, not an 18th-century town. It presents only an illusion of historical truth, which is to say that it encourages us--and we are most eager to be encouraged--to believe in a falsified and sanitized past.
This preference for image over reality is so central to Williamsburg in its 20th-century incarnation that it can even be said to explain the very existence of the "historic preservation area." The nonprofit foundation that has underwritten its reconstruction was set up in 1926 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose life's work was image-making--persuading the public that the name Rockefeller was a synonym for patriotism and philanthropy instead of ruthlessness and avarice, as personified by his notorious father. In the minds of many of his admirers, Williamsburg remains John Jr.'s finest accomplishment; that it has been a singularly successful investment in sound public relations is indisputable, since there could be no better PR than indelibly imprinting the family name with the bold letters of patriotism.
Williamsburg is also, this being America, good business. John Jr.'s foundation may be nonprofit, but daily activity in what is reverently called the Historic Area is devoted primarily to separating the tourist from his cash. The real center of Colonial Williamsburg is not the Capitol, where the House of Burgesses sat; it's Craft House, where some of the priceyest goods south of Tiffany's are marketed in wholesale lots. Going to Williamsburg is like going to New York; every time you turn around there's someone's hand in your pocketbook, though in Williamsburg the hand is at least soft and agreeably scented.
One of the articles for sale at Craft House the last time I was there was a book by Carl Bridenbaugh called "Jamestown: 1544-1699," a history of the brief life of the older settlement a few miles away on the James River. Maybe no one on the store's staff had read it, because so far as the image of early America fostered by Colonial Williamsburg is concerned, this is a subversive book. In heartbreaking detail, it describes the struggle to settle Virginia: the filthy, perilous and pestilential conditions of daily life; the bitter animosity between the powerful few and the abased many; the control of government by an assembly that was neither democratic nor popular; the terrible ways in which early settlers came to their early deaths. It is "a somber chronicle, one unrelieved by either merriment or an attitude of warm humanity."
The drive from Williamsburg to Jamestown is a short one, but the agenda indicates that the assembled luminaries will not be making it. This, when you think about it, is not surprising. Jamestown, in its permanent state of excavation, is the real thing: a tiny spot, desolate but beautiful, the foundations of its mean houses huddled together against the Indians and the weather and the unknown--the place where America began. Williamsburg, by contrast, is a period piece that has been constructed to suit the convenience and self-interest of hindsight. It is the way we want to see ourselves, so it stands to reason that it is also the way we present ourselves to the world.