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History tells us how to and not to behave

Charles Moore • Jun 2, 2018 at 8:30 AM

I’m reading two books right now that at first glance could not be more opposite but as I think about them they are very much alike.

One is “The Reckoning” by David Halberstam. The other is “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy. It takes a second to realize that both authors are writing about American history with opposite approaches and sensitivities. I admire both. I picked up Halbertstam at the library’s book sale, for no particular reason. I relinquished resistance to McCarthy, although this is his fourth for me, for the library book discussion group.

Americans have a peculiar love/hate relationship with their history. We like it when a story supports our preconceived notions of that same history. We don’t like it when the story conflicts with our preconceived notions. I, for one, was conflicted when I learned that Davy Crockett was not “born on a mountain top.” Some of that darned revisionist history totally destroyed my world.

We tend to ignore that which doesn’t help make us safer or richer. Mostly richer. At one level we also see no way that learning history in school ought to make us more employable. When Henry Ford is quoted as saying “History is bunk” he is, of course, expressing the popular opinion that the “new” is replacing the old and that makes knowing the old irrelevant. This will be forever prevalent in our thinking since we’d rather believe of ourselves as always cutting edge and up-market and advancing and all the rest of the modern jingoism. How does knowing about the Revolutionary War get me a job? The popular active verb is “get” but the question is poorly stated.

Halberstam, a renowned author of very long and involved histories, has a reputation for getting the story right, down to the last detail. That is part and parcel of his popularity, I think. You’ll know more than you ever wanted to know after reading 700 pages. This also defines “summer reading” because it’ll take all summer. “The Reckoning” is about the oil crisis in the 70s and its impact still today that crushed the Big Three, began to reset the American middle class, and changed our attitudes about wealth and progress. At the time, of course, I don’t think we knew what was happening to the country other than we were worried (that we didn’t know) and angry (vaguely, somehow our balloon had been burst).

“Blood Meridian” has a reputation for being very violent. That’s true as far as the statement goes. We’d rather watch video games and movies and television shows that blow up cars by the dozen, destroy whole cities, and wage Titanic battles between Titanic baddies. McCarthy’s take on a historical era is detailed, vibrant, and gory. On the one hand, McCarthy is the exact opposite of Halberstam, but as well written, descriptive, and as tightly controlled. If you do not like McCarthy’s barbarianism, then don’t excuse the violence in “Wired” or shoot-em-up of “Seal Team” and that ilk as just harmless pretend play and therefore OK. Violence is violence.

Where Halberstam writes from an objective position, using someone else’s words, McCarthy writes from his gut with his own words. While Halberstam knits millions of parts together, McCarthy surveys the wreckage. It is almost as if he had a painting at hand, one of the Native American massacre tableaus, and he is simply describing in heart-rending detail each death on the canvas. Halberstam circles you with facts and details, letting the weight of his evidence convince you of the history he is telling, McCarthy leads with a left to the jaw followed by a right to the solar plexus.

Both Halberstam and McCarthy write what they see as important to know about the times. Texas history might not be important to Detroit-ers and they, in turn, might not care much about Texas but that should not prevent two very good authors from giving us their take on important eras.

What history really has to do is stay relevant. “The Reckoning” is really an ongoing process of economic and commercial upheaval that seems to sneak up on us periodically. “Blood Meridian” ought to remind us how to behave towards other humans, a lesson sometimes, I think, not as much practiced as it should.

Maybe that’s what we learn from history.

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