Myth-busting: history books can lie

Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time is the story of Inspector Grant, who finding himself flat on his back in the hospital and terribly bored, comes across a portrait of Richard III, the 15 Century English king who famously murdered two young princes in the Tower of London to secure his position on the throne.  Grant considers himself an expert reader of faces and decides that the face in the portrait isn’t the face of a killer.  With the help of an eager assistant, he begins investigating the truth behind the murder of the princes and discovers that Richard III, in all likelihood, is innocent of the crime, and that in fact, he had no real motive for committing the double murder in the first place.

The novel’s central theme is that historical accounts are often flawed, that what we take to be historical facts from what are considered the most reliable sources—in this case Sir Thomas More—can be lies.  I’m a little obsessed with this theme.  It comes up again and again in my own writing.  In Dodging and Burning, I investigate how deeply a photograph can lie, how context can mean everything.

Recently, my partner and I watched a 4th of July parade in Naples, Florida.  Four hundred Tea Party members (the largest group in the parade) walked down the street waving their American flags and carrying posters, protesting higher taxes and health care as a socialist institution. They were all white, and many of them over the age of fifty.

As I watched, it occurred to me how frightened they were.  If they based their concept of America on what they’ve always been taught America is by their families and by their school books, then the idea of change—Obama’s watchword—would be scary.  Of course, what they don’t realize is that the version of America they come to believe—much like Richard III in Tey’s novel—is flawed.

They never learned to question the history that was taught to them.  To those of a more progressive bent, they seem to fear change, but in fact, what they fear is truth.  The America they represent is an idea—a 4th of July parade in Naples, Florida—not a reality and certainly not me.  America is a collage of different races, religions, ethnicities, orientations, etc. We’re not one thing, but many, and they don’t seem to understand this.

In Tey’s novel, a character comments: “It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.  They don’t want to have their ideas upset.  It rouses same vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it.”

The Tea Party members are those people; they don’t want their myth busted.  The America they believe doesn’t exist and perhaps never existed.

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Filed under Classic Novels/Mysteries, Gay and Lesbian Issues, Photography, Politics, Teaching and Writing

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