Emanuel Leutze. Washington Crossing the Delaware. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Difficulties of Writing American History

It was a rash decision on my part to go ahead and write on American history. In fact, it was perhaps one of the most difficult things that I had ever done in my entire life. It is more often than not that people lack the understanding of what actually goes into writing a history book, let alone one about the vicissitudes and complexities of U.S. history. It came down, at least in my perspective, to having something to say first, then the actual methodologies of history that came about as a result of studying the grandeur of the American story.

It is even more difficult to understand as to why I chose to write the book as a collection of essays, rather than one generalized narrative from the Colonies up to the Gilded Age. It came down to the basic idea of specificity. By writing it in essay format I could choose and pinpoint exact and specific parts of American history of which I thought would be of greater relevance to my ideas.

The main theme of my book of course is that of the systems of oppression, but not just from the point of the view of the ‘underdog,’ rather also from the top hierarchy of power. To understand such systems as one fold of people oppressing the bottom is wholly wrong, as the fluidity of the power struggle did change throughout the course and building of the American nation. Nothing is more difficult than trying to explain the sheer intricacy of the development of American freedom as something not only mythologized, but also something wholly real for a great deal of people.

The problems that the American nation has gone through, such as slavery, war, class issues, cannot be denied, in fact they must be studied in far greater depth. Yet when one looks at the decrepitude of European despotism, and around the world, it makes you wonder. Although it is pernicious to actually believe in the American “dream,” there is a reason why not to see the United States as the place where one can have the most opportunity to build wealth for oneself. The present however is not the past, regardless how much it is affected by it.

Still, the difficulties of combating the need to mythologize, but also keep oneself rooted in the reality of the situation are far-reaching. One cannot simply dismiss the U.S. gains toward social liberty for its people all the way until the 1960’s, while one can surely never dismiss the horrid oppression of minorities throughout its history. In my book I bring out the point, one which Milton Friedman famously expressed, of “a sense of proportion” when it comes to comparing America to the rest of the world. The reality of the situation is that the United States had to dread down a long path before it could reach the ideals it presented in its Declaration of Independence, some of which are still not in application today.

The best way, I believe, to combat these issues is to present a history of individuals in the most specific way. In my book I have dealt with the narratives of all kind of people from all walks of life. From lower class Irish women in New York, African-Americans during the Reconstruction era, to Presidents themselves. The way that we can understand the U.S., or the history of any other nation for that matter, is by understanding its people.

History cannot be black and white, nor in fact can it be grey. It is a series of layers, colors, dimensions, contexts, interpretations and purposes that transcend both the objective and the subjective, but also combine them. There are absolute objective facts, and then there are subjective interpretations. These are the problems that any historian faces, when trying to write the history of a people, and of a nation. The narratives of individuals cannot be more important than the nation itself, although they are the small pieces which in the millions make the breadth of its history.

Milad Doroudian is the author of Essays in American History: From The Colonies to the Gilded Age.

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