Harrison: The View from Main Street in the 1930's

Truth and memory are subjective things that change from century to century and decade to decade. This could not have been driven home to me more obviously than when I read this book.

As you probably know from 7th grade history class- Harrison was only president for a few weeks. He famously caught pneumonia after giving his inaugural speech outside in foul weather and died shortly thereafter. It's not surprising then that my choices were limited as far as books. Turns out there's only one Harrisonphile out there and the book he wrote was from 1939.

Everything about this book seemed dated, from the crude racial language to the author's old timey name- Freemen Cleaves.

What was more interesting than the book itself though, was reading a view of historical events that for the most part changed in the last 25 years or so. This author's view of the Battle of Tippecanoe was quite different than our current guilt ridden view of our interaction with the Native people's of the United States.

Tecumseh, the Shawnee Chief that helped to unite several tribes in the Midwestern United States against American expansion is now remembered as something of a folk hero. In the historical re enactments such as the ones my family and I used to watch in southern Ohio, he's usually the 'noble savage' fighting uncouth settlers to maintain his people's benign way of life.

In this author's mind though, he was barely more than a terrorist and lacked the self control that the noble whites could exercise over themselves. The Indians were constantly shifting sides from supporting the British to the US, from anger to passivity. The alcoholism that ravaged their people is treated almost as a character flaw of the hapless 'redskins'.

In addition to his dim view of the 'redskins', he also seemed to have a dark view of mixed race people, referring to them as 'mulattos', octoroons or quadroons (I actually had to google the last two to find out what they even meant).

It's easy to write off this man's unpolitically correct views as extremely racist, but we have to remember that his views were the status quo of the American white population when he wrote this book in the late 1930's. In fact, this guy actually was from suburban New York, so it's not like he was some KKK member from Mississippi or anything like that.

If we want to judge this guy's views on non white Americans as a relic of the past, we should really ask ourselves just why is it that a significant portion of the American population doesn't think that Barack Obama is a 'real' US citizen? Would we learn that we're less evolved than we thought?

No comments:

Post a Comment