Not Endorsed by Your Teacher
Turning a Satirical Eye on US History
If you’ve done archival research, there are inevitably documents you just couldn’t find. Perhaps they weren’t saved. Perhaps they were destroyed, whether purposely or accidentally. Or perhaps they never existed—you simply wish they did, so you could answer that question you’ve been asking for years. Historians are accustomed to this problem, but a satirist might ask, “Why not write them yourself?”
In her new book, humorist and Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri did just that. In Alexandra Petri’s US History: Important American Documents (I Made Up), you’ll find fictional oral histories of the Constitutional Convention, Moby-Dick, and the musical Oklahoma!’s exclamation point; advice for posing for your Civil War photograph; the Real Housewives of the Space Program; and excerpts from Richard Nixon’s White House tapes (but just the parts where he’s yelling at his dog, Checkers). Described as “a history for people disappointed that the only president whose weird sex letters we have is Warren G. Harding,” the satirical book leans into the absurd, the goofy, and the downright weird, making for a text that students should not study when preparing for their AP US history exams. (And as is noted prominently on its cover, this book is not endorsed by the College Board.)
Petri told Perspectives, “I have been joking when I sign copies of the book that ‘I hear you love history, so I made you some more.’” A lifelong history buff, Petri traces her interest in the American past to a book of “weird presidential facts that I now am not sure are true. From it I learned things like ‘Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife was a teetotaler nicknamed Lemonade Lucy,’ ‘Chester A. Arthur loved to stay up late at night,’ and ‘James Garfield could write a sentence in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other.’ Are any of these things accurate? More information requested from those in the know!” Her mother was a huge fan of George Washington, with his image decorating their home on plates, fans, pillows, and Christmas tree ornaments. Childhood trips to Civil War battlefields, the homes of American authors, and the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site piqued Petri’s curiosity further. At the latter, “the tour we went on the first time kept denying things in a very suspicious way. ‘He didn’t take a bribe from this man! He didn’t have an affair with his wife’s niece!’ You don’t need to go out of your way to tell me that he didn’t have an affair with his wife’s niece! Now I have questions! So I thought that was extremely funny, and I loved that sort of oblique way in, where you figure out the story by painting very carefully around the story.”
Petri became interested in American literature early in her life as well. “I was one of those nerds who would read the classics for fun,” she said, “because they all have naughty bits if you’re willing to put in the time with the footnotes. Everyone sees you reading Herman Melville’s letters, and they think, ‘How erudite!’ But you’re actually trawling through them because somebody left a cane in his bed and you want to know whose cane it was! You’re just there for the gossip!” And at the end of the day, aren’t all of us there for the gossip?
Like a historian, Petri is attuned to the gaps and absences that exist in the documentary record.
Many of the documents she’s created lean into that angle. In “Excerpt from Modern Etiquette (1793),” readers will find a Mad Libs–style guide for writing a letter with blanks labeled “noun, most intimate part of yourself” and “past-tense verb, another way of saying ‘throbbed,’” which pokes fun at how often historic sources that some historians have read as platonic come across as quite passionate to a modern reader. Others look at famous events or figures from opposing sides, like “A Spider Objects to Jonathan Edwards” or “The Group Telegram Following the ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech” (“Okay, I’m just going to say it STOP Did anybody else think that was a little weird? STOP”). And then there are the pieces that lean into the totally absurd. What if Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women was actually Big Women, and the March sisters were 60 feet tall? What if Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation with “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself—and the Thing That Ate Herbert Hoover”? What if Sesame Street had a “Very Special D-Day Episode”?
As Petri said, “I love a messy primary source document!” Like a historian, she is attuned to the gaps and absences that exist in the documentary record. “I’m obsessed with all the letters we should have but don’t. I love when you can almost catch sight of something that might or might not have happened, and you don’t know.” This project gave her an opportunity to think about those missing pieces, the letters that intentionally were not preserved, and the rough drafts that were polished up into something different.
Knowledgeable readers will mostly recognize the big names, events, and literature Petri satirizes. When asked about how she chose what “greatest hits of American history and literature” to work with, she replied, “I think it’s less Actual Greatest Hits and more Things We Keep Being Told Are Greatest Hits.” She looked for the chance to read about the things that seemed like a mere mention or footnote in textbooks, “the books you may have heard of but not necessarily read,” like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin (the play performed at Ford’s Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated). Some of them were personal: “Sometimes it would be a case of ‘I’ve been mad at Nathaniel Hawthorne since 2004, and I would like to deposit this grudge-work that has been curdling within me for decades.’” Others were an exercise in tackling the big myths—the founding events, the presidents, the politics, wars, and literature that shaped the United States (or so we’ve been told). That necessarily meant spending a lot of time on white, upper-class men rather than telling a more diverse story and drawing on the experiences of women, people of color, the working classes, and more.
This focus on the classics of history and literature positions Alexandra Petri’s US History right in the center of current debates over what is important in our national story. In the introduction, she writes that the book is addressing “our great national anger toward history,” and that “sometimes it seems that being mad about the past is the only thing we can agree on.” She told Perspectives, “As long as there has been history, people have been mad about it. It’s a slippery thing: it objectively happened, but the way it exists after it’s over is so strange and quicksilver and hard to grasp.” After a battle, for example, you have the place it occurred, the documents about the events like diaries, maps, and casualty lists, and “everyone involved has a different theory about what went wrong, why the people who won, won, why the people who lost, lost.” That “slipperiness,” as Petri called it, leads to “some really 1984 ideas.” “‘If all we have that proves that X did Z is this picture, we can just get rid of this picture, and presto, he never did it!’ But he did do it.” History isn’t changed by destroying evidence or not learning the messy parts of it.
History isn’t changed by destroying evidence or not learning the messy parts of it.
The conflicts today over the teaching and learning of US history obliquely influenced Petri as she worked on the book. She sees those who read what Petri called “the genre of History Channel Dad Books of History as You Remember It Being” as looking for a specific story that focuses on the people they already know and the events they’re already familiar with, with no changes. For these Americans, Petri says, “History is Mount Rushmore and Jon McNaughton paintings and a Longfellow poem about Betsy Ross. It’s a commemorative plate with the presidents on it.” So “my response as a satirist is often ‘Here is what you said you wanted!’ and see if they actually like it. This book is sort of a monkey’s paw version of the history I think they’re asking we learn instead.”
Although historians won’t be assigning this book in their US history courses, Petri’s documents might make you think a bit differently about those sources we all think we know so well. At the very least, readers will come away laughing.
Laura Ansley is senior managing editor at the AHA.
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