Pluribus vs. Unum

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 24, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — In a musty corner of an antique store on the old Route 1, I found an even mustier, hundred-year-old ''Pictorial History of the United States.'' The author of this book, one James D. McCabe, wrote when historians were unencumbered by what are now called the ''storm troopers of political correctness.''

His text recalled a time when even a colorless and relatively straightforward writer would describe the American past unself-consciously as ''a grand history -- a record of the highest achievements of humanity -- the noblest, most thrilling and glorious story ever penned on earth.'' In star-spangled praise, McCabe not only called this ''a Christian nation'' but one which was happily ''secured for the language and free influences of the all-conquering Anglo-Saxon race.''

To read this now, when Christopher Columbus -- the man and the day -- are being debated, is to see how attitudes and ideas become antique. Speaking in the 1890s, my treasured McCabe did refer to some wrongs the white man inflicted on the natives, but this is not, to put it mildly, ''Dances with Wolves.'' He tended to regard the ''savages'' as, uh, fairly uncooperative.

Women show up in this text rarely and African-Americans make cameo appearances as victims of slavery or subjects of policy. And though this author tipped his hat more than once to religious tolerance -- coming out squarely against the Salem witch trials -- he rather casually referred to Joseph Smith, the leader of the Mormons, as a ''cunning impostor.''

What was most striking is what was most typical of my yellowed history. A century ago, the story of America was cast as an onward and upward tale of great men and their institutions and their battles. Our history was one of glory and progress, a parade of presidents, each of whom came with a fine resume and nearly all of whom did the right thing.

The text is vastly out of date with our sensibilities. We are more contentious now, even about our past. In the schools and colleges, dusty and dry discussions about curricula have turned into heated and highly political debates that were unheard of 100 years ago: What should be taught and learned about our country? Who has been excluded? What should be included?

They are questions that get to the soul of who we are as a people and what we will think about our country. The debate is often framed now as an attack on the excesses of multiculturalism and increasingly there is an angry edge to it.

The attempt to open up the world view contained in the writing of men like McCabe is now seen as fragmenting, trivializing, even distorting. Blacks, women, Native Americans, who once criticized history as ''his story'' -- a record of ''dead white men'' -- are now being criticized in turn.

I feel no nostalgia for the comfort and coherence that came from this limited view of the Great Men's March of Time. But what is typical of our present is the difficulty in agreeing on our past, writing an American history. Typical of our era is the cacophony of voices, once left out, now scrapping for a piece of the historic pie to call their own.

If a historic sense is important, if we define ourselves by our past, then the task now is to find a way to hear the voices of the frontier women, and the Indians at Little Big Horn, and the people who did not make laws. To include more voices without losing a connecting thread of shared values and ideals that make us part of something recognizably American.

Can we have diversity and unity in these united states? What antique arguments will cause our descendants to smile smugly when they find them in a country store on a future afternoon?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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