Nonfiction: Lies Across America, by James W. Loewen

Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Published in 1999, Lies Across America contains 100 brief essays about the mistakes and misrepresentations that abound across the US on roadside history markers. First there are the blatant deceptions: Consider, for example, that The Native American tribe known today as the Delawares had that name foisted upon them by Europeans; its members referred to themselves as Lenape, which means “we are the people”. In Kentucky, the log cabin said to be the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln was built 30 years after his death. Then there are the glaring omissions: Among the hundreds of memorials located on Gettysburg Battlefield, not one of them, Union or Confederate, mentions slavery. More generically, there are incredibly few statues of prominent American women who actually lived, though there are some symbolic ones, most notably, Lady Liberty. There are also some amusing entries, such as the way in which the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree became accepted as gospel, or the spat about the whether Daniel Boone is buried in Missouri or Kentucky, or another about who was the first to administer general anaesthesia.

Many if not most of our historical sites were established following the Colonial Revival movement, during the first half of the twentieth century. Since history is generally written by the powerful and victorious, it is not surprising that they would choose to commission monuments that tell only the positive sides of their stories. Nor is it surprising that the disenfranchised – for a long time, that means anyone who was not white, European, and male – are largely ignored. Lies Across America provides an important service in pointing out the need to revise the way our history is presented to us; if this is going to continue to happen by way of plaques and monuments, it’s crucial that what they tell us is accurate and fair. Lies is interesting and fun to read, but if it does not spur its readers to explore history on a deeper level, it encourages only destruction and ridicule, rather than reform and education.

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