November 9, 1998
Volume 51, No. 11
Allitt is thinking about English and American history
I spent the first 21 years of my life in England and the second 21 here in the United States. I visit England every year and am equally familiar with how each nation treats its past. England has the better historical resources, but America, with scarcer resources, makes much better use of what it has.
Consider architecture. The whole of England is dotted with medieval churches, and there is probably nobody in the country living more than 20 miles from one. But the vast majority of these churches, too commonplace to be noteworthy, go unnoticed and largely unappreciated by most of the people. Only a handful--the great urban cathedrals-are popular tourist attractions. Every summer they are packed with Americans.
Buildings over a hundred years old on this side of the Atlantic are unusual enough to draw favorable notice, and nearly all of them enjoy protection and veneration. They enjoy the care and attention of preservation groups, public and private. Beautifully kept, widely advertised and much visited, they demonstrate a collective American pride in the national past which has only the most shadowy English counterpart.
Americans treat their libraries, like their buildings, with more reverence than the English. When I was an undergraduate in the mid-1970s I could enter any Oxford library unchallenged and pull from the open shelves books published two or three hundred years before. Those which generations of students had used were well-thumbed, grubby, covered in graffiti, torn and shabby, with some pages missing altogether. Only the superb quality of the leather bindings kept them from breaking to pieces. I never saw an English librarian rebuke a student for misusing these priceless books.
Compare that experience with entering Emory Special Collections. Entrance to the building itself is controlled. On the top floor I have to sign in, then relinquish coat, bag and pens. The librarians make me fill out an elaborate form, then bring the requested book from a heat- and humidity-controlled vault. Placing it softly before me on a shaped foam pad to prevent the spine from cracking, they let me take notes only in No. 2 pencil, and I feel their vigilant gaze on me from start to finish. This library, and its fellows throughout America, are places where no historical resource need fear neglect.
As with buildings and libraries, so with battlefields. I went recently to Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, where in 1485 King Richard III fought for his crown against Henry Tudor, and lost. It is a place of national importance but is almost deserted. A pair of wind-tattered flags fly from flagpoles beside a converted farmhouse, which contains a handful of homemade battle dioramas, with plastic soldiers. There are a few vague footpaths around the field but the ground itself is plowed and planted with crops. On the day of my visit a tractor roared back and forth, spraying liquid manure, pausing only at the edge of the Victorian railway cutting that slices through the site.
What a contrast with Chickamauga, two hours north of here. Hundreds of acres there have been turned into a beautifully kept commemorative park. Every state whose soldiers fought in the battle has its own stone monument, many of them 30 feet high. A splendid visitor center welcomes thousands of guests every weekend. In it and on the well-defined park trails you can learn a great deal about the war, the Chattanooga campaign, the generals and the soldiers.
Even on the question of the British monarchy, which they once overthrew by force, the Americans are more historically minded than the English. A few years ago Antonia Fraser visited Emory and gave a talk based on her book about the six wives of Henry VIII. The Cox Hall ballroom was packed with five or six hundred guests. They followed her talk with a fusillade of questions, showing a high level of knowledge about Tudor history. She remarked at a reception afterwards that when she gave talks like this in England her audiences were small and vague, asking questions like: "Why do you like history?" whereas in America, as on this occasion, they were big, keen and learned.
The two nations' calendars also suggest that Americans are more intent on nurturing historical awareness than the English. Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays were both celebrated until recently, then another historical figure, Martin Luther King Jr., took his place on the national calendar. Independence Day, each July, commemorates the nation's birth. But in England there is no celebration of Shakespeare's birth, nor of William the Conqueror, nor of Winston Churchill. Neither does England pause to remember its victories at Crecy, Agincourt, Waterloo, or in the Battle of Britain. England's public holidays have grimly utilitarian names like "August Bank Holiday."
These comparisons of buildings, libraries, battlefields, monarchy and the calendar illustrate my belief that American people are more historically conscious than the English. Why? Partly it is because America was created out of diverse immigrant populations and needed to cultivate a self-conscious national awareness. Also, America takes the ideals of democracy and human equality more seriously than England. It believes that history, ritual and tradition, like education and the vote, are for everyone. Throughout most of England's un-democratic history, by contrast, such things have usually been the privilege of a tiny elite.
Americans often ask me how I, as an Englishman, could be bothered to study the history of somewhere so brashly new as the United States. My answer is that in most respects the two societies are about the same age. Much of "Old England" is not nearly so old as it seems at first glance.
There was in England an almost universal indifference towards old English stuff until the Victorian era. Even then the architects of the Gothic Revival had no qualms about demolishing and replacing parts of medieval gothic churches in the belief that their own version of gothic was better than the original.
The English Victorians invented a lot of ancient traditions at just about the time the Americans were inventing some of their own. Ostentatiously old English places like Stratford-on-Avon are, in large part, the creation of American tourists. American literary pilgrims last century were baffled to find so little reference to the Bard at his birthplace. It was their prompting which led the city council to designate one Elizabethan house that happened still to be standing, as "Shakespeare's birthplace."
An English friend, the holder of an Oxford degree in engineering science, once asked me in all seriousness whether there had been an interval between the first World War and the second. As he admitted, he knew absolutely nothing about history. I have never met an American with that level of historical unawareness.
In the last couple of decades, however, there has been a spate of books by gloomy Americans like Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch and William Bennett, deploring what they see as evidence of cultural illiteracy and historical ignorance among young Americans. But isn't it striking that these books regularly become bestsellers? There is a wide audience ready to respond to the crisis. In other words, the reception of their books is reassuring evidence to disprove the authors' central claims! Had there been a book titled "The Closing of the English Mind," its sales would never have reached 100 copies, and somewhere a reviewer would have remarked that the English Mind had never been open in the first place, and certainly not to things like history.
Patrick Allitt is a professor of history and author, most recently,
of Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome.