Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Comment on James W. Loewen's LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Paperback)

I am copying this from Amazon comments on the paperback.

Today I received the routine Amazon invitation to review LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME because I had bought it. I have been brooding about the book for the last weeks, so I can write at least a short hasty personal response to a chapter that happened to fall open when I took up the book. It may not be typical of what Loewen does in other chapters.

When my paperback copy of LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME arrived it fell open to 172-173--and stayed open, for it is a surprisingly well-bound book, for a paperback, a book easy to use. I read on 173 that in the mid-1850s slaveholders from Missouri had established "a reign of terror" to drive free-soil farmers out of Kansas. In May 1856, I read, "hundreds of proslavery 'border ruffians'" raided free-soil Lawrence, "burning down the hotel and destroying two printing presses." Loewen quotes an old textbook on the retaliation: "a militant abolitionist named John Brown led a midnight attack on the proslavery settlement of Pottawatomie. Five people were killed by Brown and his followers." That's all I see about the killings at Pottawatomie at that point. Loewen goes on to focus on whether or not Brown was crazy in 1859, when he led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in which five "people" were killed. Rather than being crazy, Loewen thinks, "Brown provided the nation graceful instruction in how to face death." He raises the possibility that textbooks "should not portray this murderer as a hero," "murderer" only in reference to those killed at Harper's Ferry. Later Loewen explains that previous textbooks have told what Brown did at Pottawatomie, "where he was the attacker," and make it seem that "Brown's Pottawatomie killings" were "unmotivated." I kept looking in Loewen for a full account of what Brown did at Pottawatomie and did not find it.

Does it matter what happened at Pottawatomie? It mattered to me when I was editing Thoreau selections for the first edition of THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE even while Nixon was still drawing out the war in Viet Nam. I put Thoreau's most radical essays into the first edition (1979), and kept them in as long as teachers did not demand that they be excluded as irrelevant to their teaching plans. I wanted the selections to show the consistency or inconsistency in Thoreau's attitudes toward how he could change society. I wanted to know how much he and the other Concord abolitionists knew about Pottawatomie, and in those years before newspaper databases spent some weeks looking for accounts of Pottawatomie. I wanted to know what Thoreau was willing to ignore or justify as he wrote his plea for Captain John Brown. I was particularly interested in showing whether or not he was ever willing to let someone else vote his proxy.

In the first edition of NAAL (1979) I gave this account of the background out of which Brown "assumed near-mythic dimensions in the American consciousness as madman-saint": "In May, 1856, at Pottawatomie Creek, John Brown routed five men and boys out of their cabins by night and murdered them in cold blood. Kansans knew who led the massacre, but news reached the rest of the nation in imperfect form and was played down by papers sympathetic to the antislavery forces. When Brown went east in 1857, 1858, and 1859, acquaintances of Emerson and Thoreau supplied him with money for guns. Probably ignorant of Pottawatomie (Brown's guilt was suppressed until 1879), Thoreau easily justified the Harpers Ferry raid." In the second edition (1985) I changed "Probably" to "Possibly" on the basis of more research in newspapers and after consulting the best Thoreau experts. Thoreau probably knew and probably was willing to overlook those murders because Brown was a hero to him, a man willing to act on principle. In his "Plea" Thoreau demanded: "Do the thousands who know him best, who have rejoiced at his deeds in Kansas, and have afforded him material aid there, think him insane?" I don't see how you can teach Thoreau powerfully unless you grapple with Brown's ordering his sons and others to hack men (and one boy?) to death with sabres or machetes. All this you find on Google now and can probably find more in some newspaper databases, although a quick look at America's Historical Newspapers database was unproductive just now. Fultonhistory.com? The Gale site?

What did Thoreau know and when did he know it? And does it matter for how we see his life and ideas? Focusing on Pottawatomie as well as on Harpers Ferry is a powerful way of teaching the essential Thoreau. Should we read the rapturous "A Plea for Captain John Brown" as the near-hysteria of one who had not acted boldly, himself, although he had one spent a night in jail? Is "A Plea for Captain John Brown" nearly insane? Idealistic people can go crazy from living in prolonged, unwilling complicity to evil, as many now-PC folks may feel they came close to doing, or actually did, during the Viet Nam years, during Watergate, during, they might say, Reagan's systematic deregulation, or during the presidency of the second Bush. Under the prolonged horror of living in a slave society did Thoreau stop being Thoreau, who would never, in his early years, have let someone else vote his proxy? In 1859 was Thoreau a hero in the light of his own early principles?

Years later, in 1997, while Captain Paul Watson was in a Dutch jail fighting extradition to Norway (on charges interestingly hard to pin down, using Google), I put on reserve copies of Watson's OCEAN WARRIOR and EARTH WARRIOR and asked students to decide if Thoreau in supporting Brown unconditionally was acting in a Thoreauvian manner. Is Paul Watson now being more Thoreauvian than the late Thoreau who was increasingly weakened by tuberculosis and willing to rely on others to act out his principles? Watson was soon freed from the Dutch jail. Years later he survived my feeding him sourdough blueberry pancakes and now is fighting the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic to at least a temporary standstill. A hero. When Bob Barker gives him big money to carry on the crusade against whaling, is Barker, like the late Thoreau, letting someone else vote his proxy? Are those of us who send the Sea Shepherd society a little money letting Paul Watson vote our consciences when we might more actively be fighting Japanese whaling ourselves on the STEVE IRWIN or through safer means, since we know that the Japanese are slaughtering whales for their meat, certainly not for "research" on the habits of whales? A student can be powerfully challenged to read Thoreau in the light of Watson or other obsessed, dedicated or even fanatical heroes who value their lives less than their causes.

Pottawatomie and Harpers Ferry give teachers a chance to weigh momentous issues. Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown" can provide "teaching moments" that transform students' lives--but only if history is honestly taught. Loewen is so anxious to make Brown an American saint, as Thoreau did, that he suppresses history at least in this instance. Granted, news of Pottawatomie was suppressed in 1856, although information was out in at least one major eastern newspaper, I found, before being systematically suppressed for many years (apparently, Google confirms, until 1879). Untold stories, suppressed stories, dangerous stories, moral ambiguities--they all ought to be part of any book called LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME.


  1. A comment on a comment. I kept reading and far away from page 173, on page 294, I find that Loewen quotes disapprovingly from a textbook that views Brown's murders in 1856 unfavorably: "When Brown learned of the [Lawrence] attack, he led a party of seven men. . . . In the dead of night they entered the cabins of three unsuspecting families. For no apparent reason they murdered five people. They split open their skulls with heavy, razor-sharp swords. They even cut off the hand of one of their victims." Loewen ought to have included this back on page 173.

    On 294 he condemns this old history book for going into grisly detail: "Telling of skulls split open and providing minutiae like the heft and sharpness of the swords prompt us to feel revulsion toward Brown." What did children say 10 years ago? "Duh." I will keep reading, but more and more I distrust Loewen as an honest moral guide to episodes of history.

    Then, last night, 19 February 2011, an email from Paul Watson to all supporters of the Sea Shepherd Conservation movement announcing VICTORY--the retreat of the Japanese whaling fleet, and this morning a sloppily-written news report from the New York TIMES confirming that epicures in Japan will consume less whale meat this year because fewer whales will be slaughtered for food in the name of scientific research. Is this a teachable moment if you deal with idealists like Thoreau or if you deal with many other examples in history where absolutism conflicts with the respectable majority view? Of course it is.

    So far I am feeling that LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME is lying to me by refusing to engage with real moral ambiguities. It's provocative, and good can come from using it, but I can't trust it. It's not honest any more than the books it is condemning--or not much more than the books it is condemning.

    Ideally, it would be wonderful to use along with other histories and fresh research that students would engage it. Now, many libraries that don't have newspapers in paper or on microfilm have access to newspaper databases which can go some distance toward letting students do their own historical research. Yes, Loewen's book could have significant value if you only had a full year to teach an American history course, time enough to use the book for its value as a provocative and exhilarative. What a terrifying and attractive notion!

  2. I just came upon these comments today. Do I not note that most textbooks present Brown negatively? that several (not all) present his Pottawatomie slayings not only with some detail but also as rather de novo, with little background about the violent provocations of the other side? In this context I intended my emphasis on Osawatomie as a corrective.
    Your claim that Pottawatomie was suppressed, based on a search engine ("Google confirms"), is new to me. Google of course only a messenger, unless you used it to check a large swath of newspapers. I have not done so, but I would note the many Democratic newspapers at the time, such as the Washington Constitution. Would they not have happily spread any negative news about Brown or other abolitionists?
    Finally, why would you write whole essays about my book without reading but a fragment of it?

  3. In fact, I consulted with Thoreau scholars long ago about the publicity given to Pottawatomie and not given to it. I used newspapers at Delaware and later used America's Historical Newspapers and other databases for a sweep. I think there is no doubt that news of Brown's murders in Kansas were suppressed for a good number of years, until after the War. What interests me, always, is how good people acted as they did with such knowledge in their possession. If one is trying to reject the lies told by historians I think it is important to tell as full a version of the truth as one can.

    I made it very clear that I was responding to one part of your book which I was particularly interested in. It is a very important topic and one on which I had done a good deal of work in different years. I was disappointed in your seeming to close off part of the historical record--making it necessary for someone else to write about lies his or her teacher told her. If only political correctness could always be historically correct.

    As I recall now, when I can't take time to check, the ferocious NY Herald reported on the murders. One could check better, now, using Gale and other databases, to see if that or any other report was picked up by papers in big eastern cities.

    Students need to know just how horrendous Brown's actions were in Kansas if they are to make judgments on his later behavior and on the behavior of his supporters. That all I wanted to make clear. The truth needs to be told. Are we in agreement on that? I hope we are.

  4. How can one even begin to compare Reagan deregulation to what Brown did in Pottowotamie? Or Compare it to Watergate? Please!!

  5. The book is crap and mixes fact with fiction. Not a good read! Me and my brother served in Vietnam, and he served on the river patrol boats with John Kerry.
    James Loewen has his own agenda and twists his facts to match his opinions. The book named "Lies My Teacher Told Me" should be called "Lies My Teacher Told Me by a BIGGER One"
    I tossed the book in the garbage.