J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 reviews Gil Klein’s recent article in Colonial Williamsburg magazine. Klein suggests, with historian John Thorn, that myths are the “people’s history” and are thus a good thing, but Bell is not so sure. Here is a taste of Bell’s review:
…historical myths are often created to keep “the people” from questioning existing structures of power. And the whole article seems to flirt with the idea that national myths are not only an inescapable fact of life but a Good Thing. I’m not sure an accurate, cleared-eyed understanding of history and a rejection of myths is necessary for a successful society, but I still like to believe such awareness is a Good Thing.
I tend to agree with both Klein/Thorn and Bell. Myths and “clear-eyed understanding” can be useful. Myths can be a wonderful entry into the past for people. They can be a conversation starter. But they only go so far. This is why we need historians to clarify, explain, and sometime contradict these myths.