One summary of historian Ilan Stavans' new book begins: "Enough with the dead white men! Forget what you learned in school! The true story of the United States lies not with the founding fathers or robber barons, but with the country's most overlooked and marginalized peoples."
Stavans is referring to what he calls America's "humblest folk" — workers, immigrants, housewives, slaves and others who seem to be absent from the dominant narrative of the nation. He's compiled their stories into a "contrarian history of the United States." And in true contrarian form, Stavans' history book is a book of cartoons.
Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. Author of "A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States." He tweets @IlanStavans.
On the purpose of "An Imperfect Union":
Ilan Stavans: “The purpose of the entire book is to offer these alternative narratives to see that the history that we receive is not always the history that really belongs to us... We are the ones that have to shape that history and find in the past those that have had voices that in many ways connect to ours... This is an opportunity... to stress the fact that this is a country that has alternative narratives that have been written... in other languages. This is a country that is multifaceted and [multilingual]. A country made of immigrants that have experienced it in the texture, in the sensibility of the language that they came with. That is the sensibility that we should be able to recover, to appreciate the very value that they brought with them.”
On the graphic novel form:
IL: “The answer has to do with my role as a teacher. I am privileged to have terrific students and I witness the way they approach the world. It used to be, when I first started teaching 25 years ago, that they approach the world through words, through books — books in written prose. The young generation is very savvy, very articulate, but that is slowly transitioning from the written to the visual. It is not altogether abandoning the written, but is embracing the visual as a form of thinking, as a way to project ideas... I wanted to be in touch with that generation — to be constantly in dialogue with that generation and to bring it out of the classroom and to play with the opportunity of using images in order to think — not only to entertain, but to think. My impression is that a lot of the history we are receiving today comes through the movies, comes through the television, the internet. Often it comes in a passive way and my hope is that, through these subversive... challenging images, we can also inspire some broader thought [and] make our readers — particularly the young — think.”
On the constraints of visual representation:
IL: "No matter how we approach the past, we are constrained by the instruments that we use to bring it back to us. Those instruments will not, in and of themselves, enable the past to come to life. They will only offer an interpretation of it. All history is an interpretation. All history is fictional. It brings forth the imagination of the historian, the imagination of the chronicler of the past and it’s filtered through that one. The limits of the imagination are also the ones that are going to be reflected. However, what I tried to do here is to be critically creative... or creatively critical... There is really not an impartial way of delivering the past. Every generation brings another way of that past with an agenda, even though that generation will say, 'I don’t have an agenda. We don’t have an agenda.' We can’t really bring all the past together. We have to select. We have to edit, we have to paste, to connect... History should not be wasted on the vision that [it] is monolithic. History is fluid — [it's] in a constant change, and that change is what makes it so attractive.”
On negating the past:
IL: "[It's] a leitmotif in American history: negating in order to reinvent, destroying in order to rebuild. We love as a society to flatten out previous interpretations, to destroy entire cities only to bring them back to life, to say, 'This theory doesn’t work,' and prove that the next idea is really valuable. This idea of creative destruction that I use throughout the book, I think, is one of the major forces of the country. We are incredibly forward-looking, but also astonishingly negative when it comes to the past. We have to destroy in order to build again. One enters this river that is a nation and becomes part of it and one has the responsibility. For me, being an American means being contrarian. To have the freedom to dissent, to have the freedom to question. The questioning itself [is] what matters. Not the alternative, necessarily, but the fact that what is given to us should not be taken at face value. We should take the responsibility to wonder if what we have received from the past is what we want to take to the future — to the next generation. With my students, it is not important for me to make them know what I think. It is important to me to make them think."
IL: "Contrarianism is, in my view, not to say, 'everything is white, let’s make it dark.' Or, 'everything is dark, let’s make it white.' But to say, 'everything is white, let’s wonder why it’s white, and the same for dark.' The question is not so much how to populate the pages with different colors, but how to ponder the question, what is it exactly that the Declaration of Independence is about? The Gettysburg Address? What are the words that are being hidden between — behind — the text that we read and recite and ponder as if it is a legend from Mount Sinai? The questioning is the crucial part. There is no contrarian history that can live up to its mission, for the moment it is accepted, it ceases to be contrarian... The goal, ultimately, is to make the reader not fully happy. I don’t think that a book should make the reader happy. I think that a book should make the reader uncomfortable."
IL: “We are obsessed with the word perfection, and we’re obsessed with the dream about perfection. Think about the U.S. team in the World Cup and the chant, “I believe that we can win.” As if the belief itself could bring the team to win, in spite of our imperfections. It is the dream behind the team that makes the team for us. In other countries it is the technique, it is the experience, the history of what the German team has done, or what the Argentinian team has done. So I think that this obsession with perfection makes us Americans. And it will make us for a long time. What is it really to be perfect and how do we perfect ourselves? That’s what the book is all about."
- "What the authors seek to paint is a “colorful group portrait of these United States” — in every sense of that phrase. In their view, history is written not by the winners, necessarily, but by the biggest sinners: the robber barons and the murderers who stooped to any infernal depth to conquer."
This article was originally published on July 03, 2014.
This segment aired on July 3, 2014.