Friday, August 21, 2009

Bookends Friday: Mongrel Nation

Over at HNN (History News Network) there's an interesting review of Clarence Walker's new Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (which book I have not seen although I admiringly devoured every word of Annette Gordon-Reed's masterful The Hemingses of Monticello). The review is by historian Jim Downs of Connecticut College. Here's the part that caught my attention as a genealogist:

historical narratives in the United States have both mythologized certain prominent actors from the past while simultaneously creating silences around those with less power. According to Walker, chroniclers of the American past have mythologized Thomas Jefferson, making it difficult for scholars like Gordon-Reed and others to actually present an image of Jefferson that does not glorify him. More to the point, Walker reveals how a number of historians, archivists, and writers that have been involved in preserving, documenting, and writing about the past have purposely ignored the topic of racial amalgamation, and instead have posited an image of the United States as a lily-white nation since its conception. While historians within the Academy have certainly refuted this interpretation, the mainstream public continues to embrace this vision of the American past—which, by the way, is only further buttressed by the popularity of bestselling history books and biographies on the “Founding Fathers.” Such interpretations of the past that lionize white men in power unwittingly (and sometimes purposely) eclipse the experiences of ordinary Americans whose alleged anonymous lives form the mere backdrop to the “master” narrative of American history.
So maybe good genealogical or microhistorical writing about ordinary people (like Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie or Mr. and Mrs. Prince and The Sea Captain's Wife) is the antidote to the endless parade of Founding Father books and the "great man" theory of history?

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