[19 May 2008]
If you’re like me, it doesn’t matter how much American history you read—you’ve got this diorama version of it all set up in your head. It’s a little series of scenes, all safe and protected behind glass, telling the tales you’ve been taught or have chosen to believe. And whether you’ve gotten comfortable with a sanitized, State Capitol Visitor’s Center version of American History, or one that might perhaps work better in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, it will likely take an awful lot to shake up that presentation.
You probably think you know what I’m leading up to, that Michael Farquhar’s Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans will set all of your preconceived notions a-tremble. Not so—it will do no such thing. It will, however, play a bit of havoc, perhaps, with the way you size up the history that’s unfolding around you.
Farquhar, a former editor at the Washington Post, has done a wonderful thing with this and his other paperbacks—A Treasury of Royal Scandals, A Treasury of Great American Scandals, and A Treasury of Deception. He’s presenting subjects in a lively and sometimes titillating way that, yes, makes reading history fun. In the case of this most recent volume, he’s featuring the “pirates, skinflints, patriots, and other colorful characters stuck in the footnotes of history”. Three early cases in point: William Dawes, the unfortunate “other Midnight Rider” whose own heroism certainly matched Paul Revere’s, but whose last name simply lacked the same poetic sonority; John Billington, the foul-mouthed criminal whose own hateful countenance bobbed alongside those pilgrim hats on the fabled Mayflower; and Anne Bonny, daughter of a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner who became so rabid a pirate that she fought a British Navy vessel all by herself (and survived), while the all-male crew cowered in the ship’s hold.
Most of Farquhar’s other forgotten folks fall into two categories: The justifiably forgotten, and the surprisingly forgotten. Reigning supreme among the justifiably forgotten are Anna Jarvis, who devised Mother’s Day at the turn of the century, it turns out, not so much to honor motherhood but to feed her Norman Bates-like obsession with her own mother. Another one of these, Edwin Forrest, was a wildly popular stage actor in his day, whose interpretations of Shakespeare exuded a rough-hewn masculinity that appealed to mid-19th Century nativist audiences (his characterizations, wrote one less-supportive critic, “puff and blow like sledge men”). His most notable legacy, alas, is the deadly Pro-Forrest riot that took place at a British rival’s stateside performance. And outlaw Oliver Curtis Perry, who successfully robbed a New York train and captured the fancy of the American public for a spell by subsequently taunting newspapers and public officials, ended up botching attempt number two and went mad in prison.
Included among the second category—the surprisingly forgotten—are Sarah Winnemucca, the “Paiute Princess” who wrote Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, the first book published by a Native American woman in English. She was a complicated figure—at once a Native American activist and a believer in cooperation with whites. But although she drew suspicion from either side as a result of such line-straddling, she was a popular lecturer in white society during the late 1800s and her influence among Paiutes was second only to Wokova’s.
Next is William J. Burns, the flamboyant detective celebrity who Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself called “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” Burns certainly appears to qualify for better name recognition, as does James T. Callender. Callender is the journalist and First Amendment martyr whose acidic and tireless criticisms of John Adams and all things Federalist can almost exclusively be held accountable for prompting Adams to pass the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. And it was also Callender who, after feeling under appreciated by the newly-inaugurated Thomas Jefferson, let loose all of that Sally Hemmings business we know so well nowadays. I, for one, from this modern-day vantage point, can recognize Callender as a significant forefather of sorts.
And that sort of recognition, that search for contemporary parallels, are probably what will strike you most when reading Farquhar’s book. If his vignettes will challenge few of your preconceived notions of American History, the extent to which he’ll introduce you to prototypes of Americans you know, and maybe even love, will. This may just invigorate you and prompt you to dig deeper into certain historical episodes. Indeed, you may be galvanized to the point that you grab foolish historical forgetfulness by the throat and form a William J. Burns awareness society. On the other hand, if you’re like me (again), you’ll turn off the evening news, toss the remote on the sofa, close your eyes and then think of Farquhar’s Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans. “Ah, yes, history sometimes forgets,” you’ll think. And then, perhaps you’ll feel it ... hope.