Contingency: A future event or circumstance which is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty.
The Oxford Dictionary, online
The thrilled sense of a society dancing, all consciously, on the thin crust of a volcano.
The words of novelist Henry James,
conveying an impression of the United States
as he observed it on his return visit to his home country in 1904
Bitter antagonism divided the nation in the 2020 presidential election. In the aftermath of the election, the level of hostility is not subsiding and shows signs of escalating. If we were to borrow the metrics used for calibrating the condition of wildlands fires, we would be forced to say that election-related bitterness and anger are currently registering near zero percent containment. In other words, our situation is dire, and it is not even in the first stages of coming under control. Even worse, when it comes to dealing with volatile disturbances in national attitudes, we have no counterparts to the well-trained, quickly mobilized, and very brave fire crews who rescue the American West, year after year.
Could Emergency Response Teams of Applied Historians serve as the counterparts to those crews?
I’m not sure.
Here’s what’s ahead:
- An honest self-evaluation of an Applied Historian and U.S. citizen who has been knocked for a loop by recent events, but who has found a point of orientation in a painting by Western artist Charles Russell (see the banner above).
- An assessment of the inspiration of the example offered by a fur trapper’s resourceful response to a grizzly bear attack in 1823.
- An attempt to repurpose historical perspective as self-medication in the form of a non-pharmaceutical, non-addictive sedative or tranquilizer.
- A search for solutions through a Marxist perspective. (Peeking ahead is forbidden.)
- A valedictory and a benediction.
An Applied Historian Publicly Suffers a Crisis of Confidence
On the banner at the top of this post, you will find the painting, “In Without Knocking,” by the famed Western artist Charles Russell. Responding to an oft-told story in the folklore of the cattle trade, Russell created this certifiably unforgettable painting of some people purposefully and intentionally making a big mess.
Could five mounted men on horses enter a saloon accidentally or inadvertently? This seems impossible. But it seems possible that the men who took part in the historical episode that inspired this painting became the pioneers who crafted the saying: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Over the years, I have wished that Russell had made a series of paintings, following this incident through time: first, “In Without Knocking,” second, “Smashing and Breaking Everything in Sight inside the Saloon,” and then third and most important, “Leaving a Mess for Other People to Clean Up.”
Starting in the 1990s, in innumerable public talks, I have used “In Without Knocking” as a reliably efficient way to draw attention to situations where people, who are making a mess, are unlikely to stay around to clean up. I could, I suppose, use it in that way now. There are compelling reasons to say that American citizens of today are making a mess without the hint of a vision of how they will clean it up.
But, this time, I am drawing your attention to “In Without Knocking” with a very different agenda. This painting offers my best shot at capturing and conveying my own cognitive state. To put this in the most unsubtle way, in November of 2020, the Hoffman Hotel represents my mind, and the cowboys riding their horses into the Hoffman Hotel represent the recent developments that have ridden in to occupy my mind and throw it into disorder.
In the short term, we have no idea if we will have a peaceful and orderly transition in the White House. In the long term, we do not know if the 75 million Americans who voted for Joseph Biden and the 71 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump will find a way to coexist as citizens of a coherent nation. And in a confounding combination of the short term and the long term, we do not know when we will be free of the pandemic. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the ideas of truth and fact are unmoored, adrift in currents and tides of suspicion, doubt, and evidence-free assertion.
Can a Western American historian provide useful guidance and perspective?
I’m not sure.
Many aspects of the present moment strike me as utterly unprecedented and thereby beyond the reach of Applied History. Of course, there have been plenty of episodes of great division in this nation. Certainly, the 1850s and the onset of the Civil War constituted an era of extreme division and polarization. It is easy enough to identify similarities in some of the forces that shook the nation in the mid-nineteenth century and some of the forces that shake us now. And yet enormous differences stand in the way of illuminating comparisons. To pick one obvious difference, Abraham Lincoln was spared having to deal with the astounding power of social media to escalate conflict and to rob truth of its foundation.
So here is the source of my crisis of confidence as an Applied Historian: in November of 2020, when I examine my well-stocked cabinet of historical comparisons, I look at my holdings and think, “None of this actually fits.”
When I chose the title of this blog, “Not My First Rodeo,” that phrase was code for “Been there, done that.” Confronting the present moment in time, “Been there, done that” has lost its relevance. I have never “been” anywhere remotely like the present, and I have never “done” anything remotely like trying to navigate in a state of total mystification.
Still, when it comes to understanding the breathtaking polarization of the citizenry, as well as the reasons why the nation cannot move forward in acting on the election results, I am stopping short of writing a concession speech of my own.
I am still in attendance at the rodeo, but I am fighting hard to resist the temptation to leave the arena and take a seat in the stands. Still, sitting in the stands is not the same thing as falling silent.
Two Fur Trappers, A Grizzly Bear, and the Reason Not to Give Up on Needle and Thread
This is an example of what I would be doing a lot of these days, if I were not having an Applied Historian’s Crisis of Confidence.
In a common figure of speech, public figures and commentators lament the fact that the social fabric of the nation is torn, ripped, and nearly shredded.
Inevitably, these laments will make a Western American historian think of the fur trapper Jedidiah Smith.
Jedediah Smith, life portrait, said to have been drawn by a friend, from memory, after the 1831 death of Smith.
In 1823, in the Black Hills, Smith suffered dreadful injuries when he was attacked by a grizzly bear. His wounds were terrible, and his traveling companions were at a loss as to what to do. Jim Clyman’s story of Smith’s response is so extraordinary that it would be unfair to readers to do anything but quote it in bulk:
I asked the Capt [Smith] what was best he said . . . if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds around me head . . . I got a pair of scissors and cut off his hair and then began my first job of [d]ressing wounds upon examination I found that the bear had taken nearly all his head in his capcious mouth close to his left eye on one side and close to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head leaving a white streak where his teeth passed one of his ears as torn from his head out to the outer rim after stitching all the other wounds in the best way I was capabl and according to the captains directions the ear being the last I told him I could do nothing for his Eare O you must try to stich up some way or another said he then I put in my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands . . this gave us a lisson on the character of the grizzly Baare which we did not forget.
Yes, of course, Clyman is right to see this as a “lisson on the character of the grizzly Baare which” we should “not forget.” But it is several hundred times better as a ‘lisson” on the resourcefulness of human beings in trouble.
So here we sit in 2020, very sad and nearly incapacitated by the rips and tears in our social fabric. Nothing else seems to be working, so maybe we could try repeating after Jedidiah Smith:
O we must try to stich it up some way or another.
To jump ship on subtlety and head straight to the point, the Smith/Clyman story applies very directly to Joseph Biden, who has said repeatedly that he is planning to “heal” the nation. But is he really prepared to play Jim Clyman to the nation’s Jedidiah Smith? Here’s a crucially important aspect of this story that Joseph Biden would be wise to take into account: if Clyman had not had Jedidiah Smith’s complete consent—and even his instruction and guidance—for his enterprise in “stiching,” his career as a healer would have been cut very short.
(And now I am obligated to say that a tribute to Jedidiah Smith presents its complications. In his travels in the West in the 1820s, he took part in violent encounters with the Umpqua and Mojave Indian people. I am going ahead with this tribute, but I willingly accept the obligation to do my best to “try to stich it up some way or another” with the Umpqua and Mojave Indian people.)
How Did a Western Historian Ever Fall for the Idea that History Comes Packaged in Clear Endings and Conclusions?
Through much of American history, after a presidential election, people learned who had won and who had lost, and a process of orderly transition then unrolled.
But what has that got to do with “a clear ending or conclusion”?
In the big sweep of American history, one president stayed in office, or a new president took office. But the tensions, conflicts, and disputes that rattled the nation during the election did not then pack up their baggage and emigrate to plague another country. On the contrary, those tensions, conflicts, and disputes lingered like houseguests who didn’t care a bit about overstaying their welcome.
Yes, of course, the absence of a presidential concession speech in 2020 is a rattling situation. Nonetheless, saying that presidential elections usually delivered clear results is a world apart from saying that they settled the nation’s disputes and drew a clear conclusion to the contest between the candidates.
This line of thought leads to a recognition I was doing my best to dodge and evade.
When Americans wish for a clear conclusion to the recent election, Western American historians should be the first professional group to respond, in as sympathetic a tone as possible, “Dream on.”
Western American history is a subject of study burdened with a stunning deficiency of clear endings and conclusions. Over-supplied with stories that refuse to come to a halt, Western American history is a nightmare for people who like closure.
There are hundreds of examples, but I am making every effort to ration myself.
- Millions of people undertook journeys into the West. When they got to where they were going, the story continued as the travelers undertook what was the even more strenuous activity of settling—figuring out where they were, how they would assert a claim to live there, and how they would reckon with a cascade of unforeseen consequences triggered by their journeys.
- In Washington, D. C., Congress passed and Presidents signed hundreds of laws that shaped life in the West. The passage and signing of laws served as the simple prelude to the enormously complicated process of finding out what the laws would mean when put into practice. Implementation of a law by a federal agency often sent the law into a tangled narrative through litigation. It was not uncommon for a law to land back in Washington, D.C. at the Supreme Court. With the Court’s decision, the law would then ricochet back to the West for another round of figuring out what it would actually mean.
- The invasion and conquest of the West involved innumerable wars and battles between Indian people and Euro-Americans. The battles might have seemed to end, and the wars might have seemed to wind down, but no one can make a convincing claim that the conflict came to a clear and conclusive ending. In fact, the memories and consequences of those battles and wars remain very much alive.
- The famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner, following the lead of the Director of the Census, declared that the frontier—more or less a pseudonym for westward expansion—closed in 1890. This proved to be a thought-provoking remark, but events after 1890 did not defer to its dictates. There was more homesteading after 1890 than before, and the scale of the westward movement in World War Two dwarfed previous migrations. At this very moment, the pandemic appears to have triggered a significant migration of urbanites and suburbanites seeking refuge in Western rural areas. True to the general refusal of Western American history to comply with clear conclusions and endings, the story of the colonization of the region doesn’t know when to stop.
Frederick Jackson Turner
- The Dust Bowl was a terrible trial to the people of the Plains in the 1930s. Drought took a break, but it came back hard in the 1950s. In the West today, many experts tell us that it is time to adopt the word “aridification” and forswear the use of the word “drought,” since it implies a temporary and unusual shortage of precipitation, and aridification recognizes a lasting shift in precipitation.
I could go on, but in a fit of mercy, I won’t.
Here’s the point: if your field of study is Western history, the only reliable way to fool yourself into thinking that you have followed a story to its ending is to pick a point in time and refuse to pay attention to anything that happens after that.
Could that possibly mean that I think historians are professionally obligated to endorse President Donald Trump’s refusal to provide a clear conclusion to the 2020 presidential election, and to say that his refusal is aligned with the patterns of Western American history?
Historians are also citizens, and we retain an uncompromised right to believe that President Trump’s course of action is unprecedented and may well present a danger to national security.
But historians are also free to use historical perspective to self-medicate, achieving a sense of distance from the present and finding relief in a bigger framework of time. Administered as a sedative or tranquilizer, historical perspective has big advantages over pharmaceuticals: it does not alter body chemistry, and it is not addictive.
Resorting to a Marxist Approach
Throughout this essay, I have been forthright in admitting my doubts about the efficacy of historical thinking as a remedy for the nation’s current dilemmas.
But maybe humor could help?
Contemplating Donald Trump’s refusal to concede to Joseph Biden, I have been drawn to Marxism—but the irreverent and madcap kind.
In Animal Crackers, Captain Spalding, the famous explorer, expresses his feelings with one of those songs that settles into the mind and replays whether or not that is your preference. Rather than reading the lyrics presented here, it is far more fun to watch Groucho Marx perform the song:
Hello, I must be going.
I cannot stay.
I came to say,
I must be going.
I’m glad I came,
But just the same,
I must be going, la la!
As is often the case with great art, “Hello, I Must Be Going” is not compliant with simple political sentiments and messages. In the scene in Animal Crackers, Captain Spalding is actually very eager to depart, but everyone at the social gathering arranged in his honor wants him to stay. Thus, this song stands in a paradoxical—but all the more poignant—relation to the situation unrolling at the White House at this moment.
Still, it’s an irresistible song for our times.
Here’s my thought: why not orchestrate (literally!) a constant rotation of choirs and choruses, who will appear in front of the White House to keep this song constantly placed in the President’s reach as a merry alternative to the no-win position of resistance that he has imposed on himself?
“Hello, I Must Be Going” could become the music of the upcoming holiday season, relieving us of the tedium of the omnipresent holiday music that is about to bury us. Rather than the usual overdose of “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” we could program the Muzak systems with joyful renditions (technically, covers) of “Hello, I Must Be Going,” offered by famous music artists, performing in homage to Groucho’s wonderful work in Animal Crackers.
First, a Benediction, and, Second, a Valedictory
Let’s say that we know of someone who dreams of becoming a symbol of a valiant lost cause, securing and retaining for himself the support, affection, and loyalty of the likeminded into the distant future. Here is a very important point to bring to that person’s attention.
If you aspire to be remembered with devotion by your followers as the embodiment of an unjustly lost cause, first you have to surrender.
Awaiting an unforeseeable turn of events that might resolve the current stalemate, we could do ourselves a big favor with a lowering of our expectations.
I vote (so to speak) that we remove “they all lived happily ever after” from the office it has long held as a reigning cliché, and that we then move fast to replace it with a much more realistic aspiration for the future:
They all lived for a while after and figured out a few things that once seemed to have them completely stumped.
Marx in Copacabana (1947)
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Photo Credit: Charles Marion Russell – In Without Knocking banner image courtesy of: Wikipedia. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: The author died in 1926, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or fewer.
Photo Credit: Marx in Copacabana (1947) image courtesy of: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Jedidiah Smith image courtesy of: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Frederick Jackson Turner image courtesy of: Wikipedia