Story, But Not That Kind of Story
The other day I rented Yankee Doodle Dandy to show my older son, who knows some of the songs from school. I’d forgotten how much the movie was a New Deal, WWII film, using George M. Cohan’s Irishness, and his WWI patriotism to speak to Americans dealing with Depression and a new war. In fact the movie is doing duble duty, as they were showing it on the plane my family took as we began our vacation — an effort, in the form of a classic, to speak to Americans today. In the center of the movie is a pageant of American history, from fife and drum in 76 to Lincoln freeing the slaves, to Cohan’s immigrant nation. On screen it looks quaint — inspiring in a way, but clearly of another time. Which brings me to this posting.
One reason my history, at least, is so marginalized (thanks Chris for that fascinating research into Netflix) is because we no longer have a larger story into which we fit each person, event, or period. We precisely no longer can hold the same pagaent that is in the film. It is not clear why we need to know about 1066, or 1215, or 1588, or 1688 because we no longer have an idea that freedom was born in England, and came to flower in America.
That is correct, the old narrative was simplistic.
But now, lacking that master story, that larger frame, why should we know those dates and not others? So we turn to sensation — another book on King Tut, or Pirates — immediate gratification — or a claim that one discovery is so startling we must pay attention to it.
I am not saying we should go back to the old History of a Free People (the textbook I used in high school). But I am saying that because we have no similar large structure, no narrative, we have to fight for the importance of any piece of the past.
Why is Magna Carta more important, say, than Beloved? Of course they should not be compared. But beneath the current ignorance of, and disinterest in, at least history is also the lack of a generally shared idea of what the past adds up to, how it propelled us to the present. We are in the present seeking sensation, not linked up to the story of how we got here.