Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let me tell you a story that both you and I know.

This is a review of a book I haven't read.  But in some senses, I have.  And in some senses, so have you.

Yesterday, journalist and Pulitzer-prize winning New York Timesman Timothy Egan talked with Tom Ashbrook on the NPR radio show On Point about his new book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.  It's the story of Edward Curtis, who traveled this country in the early part of the 20th century to photograph the disappearing Native American tribes in their still intact cultures. 

Curtis the person I did not know, though some of the photos I had seen before.  Arresting in their composition, black and white, they capture both a moment in time and something more.  A man collecting rushes from the side of his canoe; the portrait of Chief Joseph, called the Indian Napoleon; these I had seen. 

But I know the book for another reason. 

We have much lore in the United States.  Our presidential candidates espouse a good amount of it each election cycle.  Last night's debate was no different. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know this very well and they know the phrases too, and if they don't, their pollsters do: We are the exceptional nation.  We are the unique nation.  We stand up to tyrants. We lead, we do not follow. 

The importance of these words is clear, and last night, their immediate impact was also clear.  In this hyper-mediated age, CNN kindly ran a focus group, broken out by gender with real-time tracking of responses to the candidates as they talked.  Say something bellicose, men respond favorably, say something moderate, women tend to be more positive.

These phrases originate mostly from our understanding of the meaning of the end of the Second World War and the defeat of fascism and imperialism in Germany and Japan. In the post-war era we demonstrated both deep foresight and great generosity about the systems needed in a much-changed world.  We sat at the top of the global heap, there by our own American ability to climb and by our capacity to unleash an arsenal of democracy, all in the name of an ideal.  Heady stuff!

Much of this national lore still animates us. It certainly reappeared in the 2003 talk of "a march to Baghdad" that sounded more like the march to Paris 60 years before.  Of course, in 2003 there was no champagne or kisses from French girls.  The faulty analogy led to differences too great to even sneer at, and the cost of the error is still being felt.

But there is another national lore as deep in our collective national self, perhaps deeper because it is older, and closer to our American core.  No founding myth can expunge it, indeed no national saga can exist without it.  It is this American truth that Edward Curtis went out and photographed. It is the story of Native Americans, in their native lands and in their native cultures, in those waning days.  Curtis found them and photographed them before that life was made extinct by the full arrival of European-based American culture. 

The story is heart-rending in many ways.  Seattle, the only major North American city named after a Native American, declared it illegal for a Native American to live within the city's limits.  Curtis found the last remaining one and photographed her.  The Comanche, some of the most feared warriors who roamed the Southwest, ended up being forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, and by the time Curtis caught up with them, they all had short hair and were wearing ties.  Any hippie or Old Testament raconteur would recognized the metaphorical Samson-like castration contained in a haircut and the expression of control and of being leashed in the donning of a neck-tie.

Most moving of all were the recordings of the people that Curtis made on wax cylinders, a technique he learned from E.H. Harriman. To hear the sounds of the bear dance recorded in 1910 -- crackly sounds on a primitive technology of an ancient dance -- haunts.  A tribal leader who was wearing a full bear's skin chants a simple, powerful sound that crosses across time.  The dancer was the carrier of a tradition that may have gone back centuries but was soon to die.  We hear it today as if it arrived by capsule from Mars, but it was us. It was America.  It is America.  As much America as any of our other founding tales. 

Let me tell you a story that both you and I know.