It all started with Columbus.
When I first started to teach American history, I discovered a valuable satirical book by former English professor Richard Armour entitled, "It All Started with Columbus." Armour announced on the title page that the book was "an unexpurgated, unabridged and unlikely history of the United States from Christopher Columbus to the present for those who, having perused a volume of history in school, swore they would never read another."The more recent updated version was entitled "It All Would Have Started with Columbus," but the book was substantially the same, 115 pages treating the whole of American history with tongue firmly in cheek. Opposite the title page is an illustration of Columbus cracking an egg in a frying pan in a futile attempt to convince Ferdinand and Isabella that the world was round.
As short as the book is, it is complete with examinations that can be given to students, asking solid essay questions such as "Why do you think Columbus was so interested in traveling to distant places? What else do you know about his home life?" Another: "To what extent would the course of American history have been altered if America had never been discovered?"
I was immediately taken with the impact of the satire. In the chapter on "Life in Old New England," Amour says, "Most of the Puritans were ministers. Each week they could hardly wait until Sunday, when they preached for several hours on such subjects as `Hellfire' and `Damnation.' In those days, church attendance was as good every Sunday as it is today on Easter." The satire in this case was successful because it is so close to the truth. If the average person typically and truthfully reveals his or her own stereotypical impression of Puritans, it would most likely be one of a fanatically religious group of people. But it took Armour to go one better and say they were all MINISTERS!
Unfortunately, mythical conceptions abound in history, and many of them seem more believable to the bulk of the population than the truth. Historians have been saying for many years that Puritans were not as pious or as morally uptight as we would like to believe, but most people refuse to accept the revision.
As Armour says, "All of the Puritans, except for a few who should never have left England, were opposed to sin. When a woman sinned, they pinned a scarlet letter `A' on her breast, where it would be conspicuous. Women who won their letter year after year were disdainfully called Scarlet, like Scarlet O'Hara and Scarlet Pimpernel. Children were kept in innocence of the meaning of the `A' and thought it stood for `Adulthood,' when such things usually happened."
Later on, Armour treats westward expansion, explaining that "crowded conditions in the eastern United States were becoming intolerable. At first people in the East refused to go West, but as the population continued to grow, they finally came to their census. Before long many farmers, who had heard about the fertile lands to the west (or to the left, if a map is being used), shouldered their hoes and set forth, shouting their stirring cry, `Westward Hoes!' A few people from Massachusetts joined the westward movement, but because of their Boston accent they had difficulty making themselves understood west of the Hudson River."
After "Hudson River," Armour adds a footnote, explaining that "Their broad `A' is not to be confused with the Scarlet Letter." While every person and event in these pages is gently teased, the story is laid out so near the truth that a person who is knowledgeable about history is always struck with the skill of the author.
Besides wanting to show my students a lighter side of American history, I have always been curious about the level of their intellects. If I discuss the Pilgrims and Puritans in historical terms, and then break up the proceedings by introducing some satire and reading a few selections from Richard Armour, I can invariably discover a minute or two how sharp is the collective sense of humor of the class. But more important, I can also get an early reading on how much they know about American history. If they chuckle easily and their eyes brighten, I can tell that they will be approachable and responsive to the relevance of history. But if they look confused or stare straight ahead, I realize that an elementary approach is necessary and that even then I could have some anxious moments. If, at the end of the semester, I have not been able to reach the students, I can always resort to one of Armour's suggested final exam questions: "Discuss in detail whatever you still do not know about American history." It might work.