Even before there were "spin doctors" there was Amerigo Vespucci. Like the spin doctors who emerged during the 1988 presidential campaign, putting a new twist on reality for a gullible public, Amerigo felt no qualms about fudging with facts.
The Italian explorer claimed he arrived on the New World's shores a year before Christopher Columbus when in fact he did not. But his spin on history was ingenious enough to convince a German mapmaker, who gave America its name 10 years later.And things have apparently gone on pretty much like that during the 500 years since then. American history is full of errors, misperceptions and misremembered facts, according to Richard Shenkman.
Shenkman is author of "Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History," which is No. 4 this week on the United Press International list of best-selling non-fiction books nationwide. Utah readers will know Richard Shenkman best as Rick Shenkman, an investigative reporter for KUTV news.
"Legends, Lies, etc." is both an entertaining and a disturbing book. In its pages you will discover that Eli Whitney didn't really invent the cotton gin; that the Founding Fathers weren't very keen on the concept of "democracy;" that probably no one was ever killed at a frontier shoot-out at high noon, and on and on until pretty soon you begin to wonder if anything you ever read in history class was right.
But Shenkman doesn't want us to run away from history. "The feeling I want readers to have at the end of the book," he explains, "is that history is exciting. It's not something chiseled in stone. . . . Every generation has to reassess its history."
All this confusion over what really happened stems partly from out-right hoaxes, partly from the fact that people are just plain forgetful, and partly from the fact that historians often have interpreted events many, many years after the fact. But mostly, says Shenkman, the lies take on a life of their own because "there's a real crying need for mythology."
Take the Liberty Bell, for example. Who knows what we learned in school about it. What we remember is that it was rung, maybe a hundred times, on July 4 to announce that the Declaration of Independence had been signed.
But there's no evidence that this is true, says Shenkman. The tale was invented 70 years later by a guy named George Lippard. And the name "Liberty Bell" was coined in 1839 by anti-slavery activists. And besides, adds Shenkman, independence was declared on July 2.
But a myth like the Liberty Bell, even though it is wrong, serves to define us as Americans, he says. It's symbolic, even though it's wrong, of what we stand for.
Historians, just like reporters, have to sift through a lot of gray looking for a few blacks and whites. In the end, all they can do is interpret what may or may not be the facts. As a reporter, says Shenkman, he has found that 2 and 2 do not always equal 4. "The bigger the story, the less likely you are to find the truth."
Shenkman's own history is this: He grew up in New Jersey. He still owns his high school American history book, a large volume whose margins are crammed with long paragraphs of notes and comments. He went on to graduate from Vassar in history, did graduate work at Harvard and co-wrote a book called "One Night Stands With American History."
His goal was to teach history at a good liberal arts college, but prospects were so dismal that he was told he wouldn't get a job like that until about 1992. So Shenkman became a TV reporter, moving to Salt Lake City six years ago.
He researched "Legends, Lies. . ." late at night and on weekends during the past two years. Many of the tidbits that make up the book were culled from the footnotes of other historians. Although Shenkman's book is proof that you can't trust everything you read, he says he sought out those scholars considered most reliable.
The result is a breezy, though well-documented, account of America's past, full of provocative tidbits such as this: "Child rearing in colonial times was mainly the job of fathers. Until the early 1800s child-rearing manuals were not even addressed to mothers."
The book covers a lot of ground, from Columbus to pollution to the Puritans' real views on sex.
We learn that only a minority of colonists in 1776 supported the American Revolution, and that there were 100,000 drug addicts in America in the 1860s.
That's a lot of stuff to stuff into 200 pages, and the result is that sometimes you feel like you've only gotten the barest of headlines. But even the headlines will convince you that Shenkman is right when he writes: "Not only have people forgotten what they should remember, they have remembered what they should have forgotten."