HISTORY is full of mixed messages. It follows that good history-writing acknowledges these contradictions; and that, when it comes to reassessing the past, we do not present “alternative” histories, but “supplementary” ones. Joe Queenan’s series From the Mayflower to the Moon (and Back Again) (Radio 4, weekdays; omnibus on Friday) has, for the past two weeks, claimed to present an alternative history of the United States, with a strong emphasis given to the contributions of non-Anglo-Saxon and European peoples.
The tales that he tells are illuminating, surprising, and subversive; but they do not constitute a coherent new history.
The series features many iconic journeys: the Mayflower; Lewis and Clarke’s 8000-mile expedition to the West Coast; the “Oke” migrations of the Dust Bowl era; and concludes with what Queenan regards as the only wholly innocent journeys in US history: the voyages to the Moon.
All other examples of American exploration and expansion have brought exploitation and violence in their wake, followed by politicians’ and historians’ creating narratives of manifest destiny. “The past is always subject to review,” Queenan states. Nobody would wish to deny that, except that he wants to use the word “review” in the judicial sense: history as a never-ending public inquiry into “good things” and bad.
The series was at its best when it dealt with the ebb and flow of popular culture in the 20th century: for instance, the shift in media power from the East to the West Coast (Thursday). The tension between the two is beautifully observed. New York and LA each want what the other has: the former would like to be sunny and have celebrities on tap; the latter longs to be taken seriously.
The complications inherent in reading history as a form of moral enlightenment were similarly evident in last week’s The Forum (World Service, Thursday of last week), which asked of its three learned guests “Who were the Huguenots?” There was no doubt that we were being encouraged to think of the parallels between the experience of these first “refugees” and that of migrants of the 21st century; and, on the BBC website, the show came illustrated with a picture of Huguenots arriving at Dover in small boats. And yet, as we heard, the Huguenots were as willing, once assimilated into the ruling and mercantile elites, to pursue the same colonialist practices, including slave-trading, as their new compatriots.
None of this should surprise us. More ear-catching was the story of the 16th-century Bible that found its way to England from France baked into a loaf of bread. The Good Book, translated into French, was a sure indicator of Huguenot sympathies, and, by the 1680s, that was enough to have soldiers forcibly billeted in your house. The artefact, a little burned around the edges, can be viewed at the wonderful Huguenot Museum in Rochester.