The “Mona Lisa” As a Stick Figure: Narrative, Truth, and Revisionist History

Today at the Flag Day and Army Birthday ceremony at Fort Sill, the narrator regaled the audience with the history of our nation’s founding, replete with the standard lore about the establishment of the Continental Army and its role in fighting for and defending our nation’s founding principles. I listened with more interest than usual because I am currently taking a course on the American Revolution, and I am intellectually immersed in the period between the end of the Seven Years War and the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as our nation’s third president. In the past five weeks, I have read thousands of pages about the players and events of that time, and have in many cases read several different accounts of the same events, written by several different historians. My knowledge of the period before I began this course was little more than the mandated mythology presented in public school classrooms, much of it sounding like the narration for an Army Birthday ceremony. As I listened today, it occurred to me how limited–and limiting–this standard mythology is, and how the American Revolution, like all historical events, is entirely to complex to fit into a neat and compact narrative. This revelation fits neatly with other thoughts I have been having lately about the study of history, and I will attempt to elaborate.

First, I need to define a couple of things in an attempt to clear up some common misconceptions. The word “history” is too often used to describe what should be referred to simply as “the past.” “The Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson,” is not “history” in any real sense. Instead, that statement merely refers to an event that happened in the past. In this statement, we are merely informed about what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and who did it.  The true study of history goes far beyond these four Ws into the much more fascinating and instructive realms of why it happened and what the short- and long-term effects and implications were. Unfortunately, this expanded view of history is where controversy enters the equation. For most events of the relatively recent past, it is often fairly simple to establish what, who, when, and where; it is when historians attempt to answer the questions of “why?” and “so what?” that demagogues are scandalized. So, forget the past; let’s talk about history.

As I said, I have read a variety of histories about the American Revolution over the past few weeks, and oddly enough, I have not gotten bored with the subject. One would think that reading about the same people and events over and over would lead to a great deal of boredom, but the opposite has happened. I find myself more interested than ever, and this morning I realized why: rather than the dry, linear, “just the facts” narrative of the ceremony narration, I am being exposed to an ever-expanding number of perspectives about this event. Each new perspective reveals something I had not noticed before, or had not thought of before. It’s as if I am walking around and around an intricate statue or carving, looking now at the detail on the left side, and now at the full effect from the front, then on to the base in the back, and now the tiny scratches on the right side. I am able to begin to see all the individual details while simultaneously appreciating the form and scope of the statue as a whole. But forget sculptures for a moment; let’s discuss paintings.

Imagine for a moment that you have to describe the “Mona Lisa” to someone who has never seen it. You are not allowed to Google it and simply show it to them; you must use all the powers of prose and poetry in your possession to convey the most realistic image of the painting you can to your student. If you’re not very imaginative, you could draw a stick figure of a woman and call it a day. Yes, Mona Lisa was a woman, but does a stick figure do justice to da Vinci’s genius? We really should dig a little deeper. We could call in an expert on color and shading, discuss the items and scenery da Vinci chose to paint in the background, and ruminate about the mysterious smile. Of course, when we do these things, we open the door to differences of opinion, and probably even some controversy. But are we going to allow that risk of controversy to keep us from fully explaining and describing this work of art to our student? Is that fair to the student? To da Vinci?

Much of the “history” taught in undergraduate survey courses and in elementary, middle school, and high school classes (and at Army ceremonies) is like a stick figure of the “Mona Lisa”–it is a very rough approximation of historical truths. The nuance and shading that makes history so fascinating–and makes it come alive for students–is glossed over for a variety of reasons: there is not time to discuss all of the intricacies; students do not have the proper background to fully understand the intricacies; perhaps the intricacies have been deemed politically unpalatable to the state or local board of education. I am currently reading Joseph J. Ellis’s brief biographical study, His Excellency: George Washington. I skimmed over some of the reviews of the book on Goodreads before I began reading it, and most were very positive. I came across one, though, that was very bitter and angry; the reviewer said that the book was so bad that if he hadn’t been on an airplane when he read it, he would have thrown it out the window. His charge was that Ellis had taken too many liberties with history, and had presumed to know too often what Washington’s motivations or thoughts were. I am nearly finished with the book, and I have not found that to be the case at all. Instead, I have found that Ellis–a very distinguished and knowledgeable historian–has written a fascinating psychological study that is very well documented and fully footnoted, and which paints Washington as a great man who, like all people, had personal and professional failings. Ellis does not shrink from discussing those failings, and I suppose that is what upset the Goodreads reviewer so much; perhaps he would prefer that his George Washington remain an American demi-god, immune to and above the human condition that we all struggle with. Though the reviewer did not use the phrase “revisionist history,” the words he did use described the pejorative sense of that phrase that gets kicked around by demagogues. Here’s the key, though: all good history is revisionist history. If it isn’t revisionist history, then it isn’t history at all. History that isn’t revisionist is simply another prosaic retelling of the past, another crude stick-figure drawing of the “Mona Lisa.” The only way to begin to fully understand and appreciate the history of the American Revolution or any other historical event is to study and embrace the multiple revisions that historians have offered over the years. You may disagree with their conclusions, but do so without insisting on a crude stick-figure portrait of the Father of our Country.

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