I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" and it brought to mind some interesting ideas about how we perceive our own history. "Blood Meridian" is an intense take on the classic American western, where every attempt is made to depict the complete utter lack of respect for human life that existed during the mid 19th century; I don't recommend it for the faint of heart or stomach. The graphic and disturbing violence of the story is drastically different from the typical western most of us are familiar with. There are no sequin shirts or lively and vibrant saloons. The characters are almost all destitute, insane, and bloodthirsty to an extreme most of us would find uncomfortable. It's as if McCarthy watched a John Wayne movie and decided to make a book to counter and contrast that image, focusing on the mayhem and lawlessness of the West. "Blood Meridian" is a reminder that often our interpretation of a specific historical event is not consistent with fact.
As Americans, we often want to assume the best of our own history, and paint it in as positive a light as possible. We romanticize our past in a way that is problematic, often lying to ourselves or ignoring certain details because they are problematic to the vision we want to believe in. Take for example the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree just so that he could prove his commitment to honesty when confronted about it. Most of us know that this story is just that, a story, but it still affects our view of our country's father. Columbus is another example, a man who paved the way for an American nation and is still remembered with a federal holiday, while the fact that he murdered and enslaved countless Native Americans is usually an afterthought. This kind of historical embellishment inspired it's own counter-culture in the writing of Nathanial Hawthorne who challenged this romanticized view of history with works like "The Scarlet Letter" which shed light on the negative aspects of puritan life. McCarthy's work similarly does that with the Western, showing the other extreme that often gets ignored, or deemed too graphic to be profitable.
What I kept asking myself while reading "Blood Meridian" was why do we feel this need to exaggerate history? All entertainment aside, why is it so hard to accept that the past is complicated, and that a straightforward interpretation is impossible? Our founding fathers weren't perfect, a fact they acknowledged themselves when they designed our government. I don't understand our obsession with taking an all-or-nothing view of history, where if you don't believe in the perfection of the past then you are somehow a cynic or unpatriotic. Our past is checkered, just like each of us is a complicated individual with virtues and flaws, and pointing out that we have flaws doesn't diminish our good qualities.