Recently, I read Launching Sheep & other stories from the Intersection of History & Nonsense by Sarah Angleton. Immediately after launched sheep, I read The American Spirit by David McCullogh. And it was a glorious back-to-back reading experience.
Sarah’s book begins with recounting how it came to be that Herodotus, the father of history, had his pants catch fire. He wrote his histories documenting many factual events, but he also included rumor, hearsay, exaggeration, and tales of cyclopes. Almost as if there was an internet in existence in 425 B.C., which if it wore pants, those pants would surely catch fire. After a war, the nation who wins it gets to write its history. When I was a US Navy pilot and we engaged in a mock dogfight, the one who got to the bar first, won the fight. Especially if he bought a round.
Doesn’t history intersect nonsense often, frequently, and in amazing ways, and in our daily lives, as we earn our daily bread, and try to impart, if not wisdom, at least experience to our children, and don’t they and history give us things to wonder and to smile about? Hemingway once wrote about writing. He wrote words to the effect that when he was working on a story, every day, he tried to write one true thing. In a way, I think Sarah is saying, when we read, even non-fiction, we should have our senses open for the smell of burning pants.
In the American Spirit, Mr. McCullogh, in effect, builds an altar with a tabernacle as a repository for history. As if History were a subject, before which, something close to worship should happen. To me, Mr. McCullogh’s book, as do all his works I’ve read, have the look, the feel, the smell, the taste, the sound of truth on and in them. Take where he says, “Nor was there ever a self-made man or woman.” Which is sort of Faulknerian, though Mr. M. delivers his message without the heavy dark tones of longing for a history of a lost time to return and play again in the present. And it’s also a chunk from “No man is an island.” Mr. M. does suggest to us, that we as Americans ought to appreciate who we are and what we stand for, and that quite frankly, America is something worth standing for. And shouldn’t at least a few of us take the time to see that notion standing atop the altar of history and take it into the core of our souls?
These two history books, I appreciate each the more for having read the other. And I have them next to each other on a book shelf. I imagine one giving a half nod of something close to worship to the other, and the other having one corner of its lips raised a tweak in something close to a smile.