Histories Without Depth

 American history, historiography  Comments Off on Histories Without Depth
Mar 042018

This is not a review.

In general, I gave up reading history books some years ago. The academic ones are so little worth the effort, and I am no longer compelled to “be up on the secondary literature” as I am no longer member of the discipline, so it’s not a necessary requirement to skim them assess their interpretations anymore. I’ve been training myself in the art of historical story-telling — something my academic training was at cross-purposes with — so if I have any interest in reading historical non-fiction, it’s of the popular history varieties. I’m doing research in how non-academics put together their stories.

My most recent reading was Killers of the Flower Moon — a book that has garnered some praise and is apparently in the running for non-fiction book awards. Author David Grann is a journalist, and I was curious to see how he would approach the history. Also, the subject is one that I have peripheral familiarity with as I am from Oklahoma and have studied some Native American history.

Gliding through the book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the story was disappointingly shallow. The superficial tale was noticeably researched, but there wasn’t a complexity or depth behind it providing a backdrop for the story. There was so much history about Oklahoma and the time period that could have been included that would have enriched the story greatly. For example, at one point Grann recounts the Osage’s desperate appeal to Senator Charles Curtis for help and protection. How much more poignant would that plea seem if Grann had developed Curtis as a character, exposing his assimilationist positions?

And, there was more. Grann seems to accept at face value that Governor Walton was legitimately impeached for corruption (thus supporting Grann’s points about impropriety in government in the state), but those knowledgeable about the subject understand the role of Walton’s anti-KKK activities in his removal from office. In a place where the governor is vulnerable to conspiratorial schemes for taking action against racial violence, what hope had the Osage — a racial minority — for justice?

Less ominously, why wasn’t Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips (66) Petroleum and a rich, powerful figure in state, a resource for aid for the people who granted him honorary membership in their nation? Grann describes the oil barons flocking to Pawhuska to bid on oil leases, but beyond that, he doesn’t examine their roles at all. Phillips was a noted collector of Native American art and artifacts as well as drilling rights, so his absence in the mystery is glaring. His failure to intercede is telling, for someone who regularly welcomed Native leaders to his ranch and celebrated territorial society. A historian approaching the subject would delve into such inquiries and recognize the value of interweaving these and other historical points (these few are just examples) into the story. Therein lies the difference between a journalist and a historian approaching the subject.

I don’t mean to single Grann out here. Indeed, the superficiality in his book is something I find common in history books penned by untrained historians. They know their immediate subjects — at least to a degree — but they aren’t steeped enough in other relevant histories to dig more deeply into their work. There’s more to extract (and it’s obvious to a historian), but they don’t even know what is there to mine. Sadly, no one will go back to more richly treat what Grann has already popularized now. It’s a loss and so typical of the lightweight histories that dominate the best-seller lists today.

More depressingly, the Osage murders remain a novelty this way — a curious story worthy of passing interest that never gets incorporated into the larger account of race relations, justice, and economics in the history of the State and States. Context would bridge the gap in this tale, but a journalist wouldn’t see the lack — and historians are too busy with their monographs and professional interests to bother. The result is perpetuation of the simple narratives that seem so indicative of US histories. There’s always so much more to the stories than the stories themselves.


 Posted by at 7:29 pm