Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, by James W. Loewen. The New Press, 480 pages, $26.95.
In Lies Across America, James Loewen offers 100 short essays, each one discussing an individual monument or historic site and the inaccuracies in its portrayal of the past. He criticizes the way the birthplace of Helen Keller, for example, celebrates her life story as a blandly optimistic account of triumph over adversity and ignores entirely her career as a leading proponent of socialism, feminism, and civil rights.
A former University of Vermont professor, Loewen made a stir in 1995 with Lies My Teacher Told Me, an account of distortions and biases in history textbooks. In Lies Across America, his approach is sometimes whimsical and sometimes deadly serious. He notes that the only white woman commemorated by an Indiana state historical marker was a "pioneer heroine of abdominal surgery," memorialized because her ovary had been removed. He also discusses a memorial erected in 1891 in New Orleans by boosters of the racist White League. The obelisk, which Loewen calls "the most overtly racist icon to white supremacy in the United States," was taken down in 1989 and then put up at a new site in 1993, triggering an outcry from opponents and a show of support by former Klansman David Duke.
Loewen has a keen eye for detail, and many of his accounts are illuminating. He describes the role of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other neo-Confederate groups in establish-ing Civil War memorials and crafting the popular image of the war as a noble "lost cause." Reconstruction is all but ignored on the public landscape--except, of course, when notorious racists are memorialized. But Loewen's style is sometimes cavalier. Comparing America's wars in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, he writes that "the United States claimed to be 'defending' the 'nation' of South Vietnam against 'outside aggression,' while in reality American forces were the outside aggressors." Later on, Loewen writes that the Pilgrims "came here to escape poverty and avoid being assimilated into Dutch society," not for religious liberty. But are those claims really contradictory, or did the Pilgrims come to America to practice their religion in an English cultural context? Loewen's nitpicking obscures the valid point that we should avoid romanticizing the Pilgrims as champions of religious freedom.
Lies Across America is a qualified success as a work of "pop history" along the lines of Kenneth Davis's Don't Know Much about History or Richard Shenkman's Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History. Loewen, however, had a larger goal in mind: to show the ways in which America's historic sites and monuments have "subtly distorted our knowledge of the past and warped our view of the world." Lies Across America is less successful here. Loewen's criticisms can be interesting, but it's not always clear that the monuments he dislikes have had a real impact on popular perceptions. And Loewen has the habit of making sweeping statements without backing them up. He writes that "Father Junipero Serra, who helped found the mission system in California, probably had more lasting influence on our institutions than William Bradford, Miles Standish, John Alden, Priscilla Mullens, and the rest of the doughty Plymouth band combined."
Of course, many of Loewen's readers are presumably looking for a good read, not a nuanced historical narrative. But the book's desire to debunk myths and "lies" can overpower the search for a deeper understanding of history. When Loewen tries to build a more sophisticated argument, the goals of popular and academic history collide. The result is a series of sometimes illuminating, sometimes hyperbolic vignettes. With more historical context and a more thoughtful, less rambunctious approach, Lies Across America could have been more effective. As it is, parts of the book will stand the test of time as poorly as the historical monuments they're meant to critique.