Friday, November 5, 2010

History's Mysteries

At Saratoga battlefield a few weeks ago, my family saw a monument erected to "the bravest officer of the Continental Army," but no name was given.  What war hero deserves a monument but cannot be named?  The tour pamphlet explained that the monument celebrated Benedict Arnold.  Everyone knows he was a traitor, but the details of Arnold's history are hard to find.  He didn't show up at all in the American history books I studied in school.  Was he again unnamable because of his perfidy, or had his story just become too insignificant to compete for space with the succeeding two centuries of events?  I tried finding his story in American history textbooks from earlier in the twentieth century, but I only found lines like "Benedict Arnold's treachery did not seriously impede the American war effort."  These earlier books were written with the assumption that every reader would already know the story.

In a similar way, I've had a hard time learning some details of the history of England.  American authors, it seems, generally don't know enough to explain the details that intrigue me, and English authors know them too well to have to explain them.  For instance, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, somewhere around the end of the seventeenth century, Churchill starts talking about Whigs and Tories.  I knew these terms, but I didn't know what they meant, when they started, whether they represented organized parties or just general political inclinations, or what ideas either a Whig or Tory believed in.  Sir Winston simply assumed his readers understood (forgetting for just a moment that the English-speaking peoples include Americans).

Three years ago, I got Simon Schama's three-volume A History of Britain as part of a new-member package with the History Book Club.  Hoping to find a different perspective and more answers, I read the first two volumes soon after receiving them and loved the experience.  The set is full of beautiful illustrations: maps and charts, as well as photographs and reprints of locations, documents, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings.  The first two volumes tell interesting stories about monarchs, statesmen, clerics, authors, warriors, explorers, and builders, and they answered some of my questions.  Tories and Whigs, for instance, came about after the Glorious Revolution that put William II on the throne and represent the two responses to the turmoil of the seventeenth century monarchy, Whigs favoring Parliament, the commercial classes, and several Protestant denominations, and Tories favoring the Crown, the landed classes, and the established Anglican Church.

I just got to the third volume recently, though, and I'm finding it much less satisfying.  I can buy his desire to let the Napoleonic Wars serve merely as background to the story he really wants to tell: the history of liberalism.  But does he really think Mary Wollstonecraft's hunt for a menage á trois plays a role in the drama comparable to that of Catholic emancipation, increased suffrage, and the end of slavery?  Apparently, considering the number of pages he devotes to it.

What I've read the last couple of days about the Great Exposition and the debates of the Victorian Era is much better.  The tensions between progress and the revival of the good old days of Merrie Olde England, between labor and capital, between helping the poor through philanthropy and helping the poor through business, and between industrial efficiency and the health of workers and their families all seem central to that story as well as being pertinent to today's America -- even to Tuesday's elections.

By the way, Benedict Arnold's story is readily available on the internet today.  But in pre-www days, I finally found out more about him in two unjustly forgotten novels by Kenneth Roberts: Arundel and Rabble at Arms.  I'll have to get back to Roberts in my next ten-year reading plan.

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