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Controversial Landmarks

June 2024
1min read

A People’s Guide to American Historic Sites

by Philip Bumbam , Faber and Faber, 256 pages, $22.95. CODE: FAB-2

PHILIP BURNHAM PUT IN TWENTY-FIVE thousand miles researching this book, pulling off at every kind of roadside landmark for slaughtered Jesuits or Nebraskan homesteaders, laying bare the old and new pieties that too often govern the versions of events thousands of visitors take home. His chapter “The Indian Battle” looks at why some conflicts are called battles and others massacres. In neither incarnation—as the site of Custer’s martyrdom or of Native American triumph—can the Little Bighorn claim any real strategic significance in the outcome of the Indian wars, he points out.

At Mount Vernon’s handsomely furnished slave quarters Burnham overheard someone declare, “They didn’t have it so bad,” and wondered if sometimes the point of historic preservation is not so much to preserve as to evade. In San Antonio he considers which Alamo to remember: the Spanish mission of the eighteenth century, the Indian-built stronghold where the slaughter took place, or the shrine of Texan legend.

In Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, he was impressed by meticulous Shaker privy restorations but unconvinced by literature blaming outside forces for the community’s collapse: “The authoritarian grip that would not permit a brother to pass a sister on the stairs, or allow one to receive a letter without an elder reading it first, made Pleasant Hill a less friendly residence for many than its name would suggest.” This eloquent road book has a cranky fascination, and what might seem at first an easy pose—quibbling with official histories and good-natured efforts of the Park Service—enriches each story by restoring what was smoothed over or perhaps never known.

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