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Down on the Farm: Versions of the past

Why remember the past? Why study what happened long ago? Who cares about the thoughts of people who are long dead?

Good questions.

Most answers are variations on the canard "those who don't study the past are condemned to repeat it."

But has studying the past ever prevented people from repeating the past in the past?

Not very often.


For every honest, earnest historian who seeks the truth, there are 10 bookish ideologues who sift through the dustbin of history for nuggets that justify their present prejudices.

My favorites are the so-called ancient historians who draw ominous parallels between Roman times and the present. They toss around the names of emperors and ancient wars and unread books and usually conclude that, like the Roman Empire, America is going to collapse.

Never mind that the collapse of the Roman Empire took hundreds of years. Never mind that America really wasn't conceived as an empire.

And never mind that the truth is so complicated that we likely shouldn't draw specific conclusions one way or the other.

But nobody questions the stories of these pop historians because their audience so badly wants to believe their conclusions.

Why doesn't anybody else call these historians on their nonsense?

First, once you are known as a "classical scholar," whatever you say is pretty much revered as holy writ.

Second, most people are too lazy to go check out the facts for themselves. And a more ethical scholar who contradicts popular wisdom will likely be ignored.

Those who seek to honestly write about the past are caught in a dilemma: If they present the whole truth, their paragraphs get so mucked up with footnotes that nobody will read their book.

For instance, most great historical anecdotes are false, but saying so can get you in trouble.

Patrick Henry was never recorded as saying "give me liberty or give me death."

The story of George Washington and the cherry tree? It didn't happen, at least until historian Mason Weems made up the tale decades after the first president's death.

Did Abe Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address out on an envelope on the way to the ceremony at the cemetery?

No, he planned the speech out for a long time knowing full well it was a historically important utterance.

But people who investigate historic legends are seen as impious, even evil, for these stories have taken on religious significance.

A couple of years ago, I researched and wrote up a small town story.

As I interviewed the participants, I learned that the best stories, those that might make it into a movie, those that drew you in, were always more complicated than they seemed at first telling.

A few of the very best stories were just plain false. Oh, how it hurt to throw them out.

Over the years, our memories polish stories into legend. Every time the story of the Great Blizzard of 1941 is repeated, a few rough edges wear off and a few contradictory facts get left out.

As I went back through the newspapers and visited with others who had seen the same events, story after story crumbled before my eyes.

The solution?

I decided that if Mervin Nelson told a great story about driving to town in tunnels after the storm left 17-foot drifts everywhere, I quoted Mervin Nelson and stopped further research on the topic on the spot.

If the drifts were actually six feet rather than 17, I didn't want to know.

You can't have all the great stories dashed on the rocks of hard truth!

As enjoyable as it is to study the past, if the account in your hands reads well, draws you in, makes you laugh and makes you cry, the story was probably polished up by a writer who knowingly left out the inconvenient parts of the complicated and unromantic truth.