HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVED: A People's Guide to American Historic Sites by Philip Burnham

HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVED: A People's Guide to American Historic Sites

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Freelance writer Burnham takes on precious American myths in this look at America's historically disinherited. Burnham doesn't see conspiracies lurking in all of America's hallowed corners, but he does see small cover-ups and big omissions that miscast the way we view our national heritage--one dominated by propertied white males. Among other ills, Burnham sees the confused conception of the American Indian; the reluctance to confront slavery at restored estates of the antebellum South; the overlooked majority of women; and the unremembered working classes. With the intention of exploring and correcting these oversights and misconceptions, Burnham visited numerous historical sites, and what he discovered was fascinating. Noting all the memorials dedicated to victims of Indian massacres, he writes, ""almost anyone would conclude that it was not the native population that virtually disappeared by the turn of the twentieth century, but the white one instead."" He found that the slave quarters at Arlington House in Virginia now function as a bookstore while those at Jefferson's Monticello have been turned into rest rooms; that, from Puritan Hannah Duston, who slew her Indian captors, to laborers in the textile mills, we have been ""more likely to put women on metaphorical pedestals than marble ones""; and that hundreds of workers who never achieved John Henry's legendary status lived and died without a plaque to mark their achievements. Burnham does see the dilemma in finding a suitable balance between historical authenticity, current and period sensibilities, and, yes, commercial success--and he rightly points out that the various philanthropic and government institutions responsible for the sites are neither unbiased nor omniscient, however much visitors tend to assume they are. Acute and elegantly written social commentary--essential reading for peripatetic and armchair tourists alike.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
Page count: 228pp
Publisher: Faber & Faber