The Miserablest of Countries

Published:March 25, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Fact beats fiction. This is as much an article of faith for historians as rock beats scissors is for second-graders. Ah, but ’twas not always thus. (Re facts, not rocks.) According to a recent New Yorker piece, the empirical, scientific approach to history only began a few hundred years ago and only became fully accepted in the nineteenth century. “Ever since,” Jill Lepore tells us, “generations of historians have defined themselves by a set of standards that rest on the distinction between truth and invention, even when that has meant scorning everyone who came before them.”

By which she means, in particular, one George Bancroft: ambassador to Berlin, Lincoln’s official eulogist, last surviving member of Polk’s cabinet, and author of the ten-volume History of the United States, written between 1834 and 1874. Writes Lepore regarding the latter:

It is romantic and opinionated; it has a gritty voice and a passionate point of view. It’s a little . . . novel-ish. In the eighteen-seventies, one Young Turk* suggested that a better title for it would be “The Psychological Autobiography of George Bancroft, As Illustrated by Incidents and Characters in the Annals of the United States.” A generation later, Bancroft’s monumental accomplishment looked even worse: now it was, as the Yale historian Charles McLean Andrews put it, “nothing less than a crime against historical truth.”

Well, that piqued my interest. What, I wondered, had this crusty old New Englander to say about the Old Dominion? Here, then, is a sample from Volume III on colonial America:

In the age of commercial monopoly, Virginia had not one market town, not one place of trade. “As to outward appearance, it looked all like a wild desert;” and the mercantile world, founding its judgment on the absence of cities, regarded it as “one of the poorest, miserablest, and worst countries in all of America.”

A crime against historical truth? A sad case of Freudian projection? You be the judge. It’s definitely a bit snotty, though.

UPDATE: Neither history nor fiction can tell us what Marc Antony was thinking as he gazed into Cleopatra’s big browns.

* Block that anachronism! Well, it’s barely an anachronism, but still . . . Young Turks did not actually exist until the 1880s.