by James Haley
Anyone who has been attuned to teaching history for any length of time (I started my first book forty years ago) has witnessed a remarkable evolution in attitudes toward what the story really is and how it should be taught. Interpretive fads arrive convinced they have discovered the ultimate truth, only to pass away and be replaced with a newer paradigm. For generations there was a traditional narrative, then there was “revisionism,” then “political correctness.” In my own field of the American West, we have experienced the “New Western History” that is now morphing into something else. This would only be a matter of amused curiosity, but for the fact that the leading lights in the field tend to review books, and judge scholarship, through the current lens du jour without (ironically) seeing their own as a transitory point of view.
This consideration became quite urgent when I began writing Captive Paradise, a history of how the United States got its hands on Hawai‘i. Early in the process I had coffee with a distinguished history professor friend of mine, to discuss my possible return to graduate study, looking toward completing a long-abandoned Ph.D. He asked how my Hawai‘i work was coming, and I said that while I was finding little to change my opinion that the 1893 overthrow was awful, I was also increasingly troubled by the horrifying oppression of the common people by their own chiefs and kings before Americans ever showed up. I cited several examples; the professor nodded and allowed that this was true, but he warned me that if I wrote the book that way and did not “position” (his word) the Hawaiians as victims of American racism and exploitation, he said, that “won’t help you get accepted back into grad school.”
Bluejackets of the U.S.S. Boston occupying Arlington Hotel grounds during overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani. Commander Lucien Young, U.S.N. in command of troops. Site of childhood home of Queen Liliuokalani. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I marinated in this irony for a moment and said, “This must be what they mean by academic freedom.” Except for isolated pockets of resistance, political correctness now rules Hawaiian history: dark people and native culture good (never mind the terrors of kapu, human sacrifice and infanticide), white people and especially Americans bad, and missionaries worst of all (never mind providing the natives medicine, education and a written language, and a legal system more judicious than commoners being seized and sacrificed to the gods). I quickly learned that I was entering a minefield. Some elements of traditional native life that spun the missionaries into a tizzy, such as the full-on, house-to-house recreational sex, have been historically treated all over the map: first recorded matter-of-factly by early explorers who were charmed by such a welcome, then played down and deprecated by a generation anxious to prove how far they had come toward “civilization,” and now touted as an example of beautiful native life ruined by American prudes.
After two years of reading it was time for the research trip. I have always done my own research, but with so much to see in such a short time, I took on a brilliant young grad student as a research assistant to take pictures of documents I didn’t have time to read while we were there. It could have been a “reality” show: My Research in Hawai‘i. Apart from occasional counseling on what areas were “safe” to visit lest we get beaten up and our car looted, a uniformed docent at Kilauea gave me a look that is locally known as “stinkeye,” and hinted that I was not a proper candidate to author such a book. If I insisted on writing it, she said, the first thing I should do was “submit” myself to the kupuna (the elders) and if they approved of me, then apply to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and follow their instructions. (I thought, “Lady, I’ve won two Spur Awards, two Fehrenbach Awards and the Tullis Prize, I don’t ‘submit’ myself to anybody,” but I kept that to myself.) The next day we spoke to a natural sciences teacher in Kohala, who said that in Hawai‘i today, to be a historian or anthropologist and be fired from the Bishop Museum, is a badge of honor. There was the docent at the ‘Iolani Palace who froze like a deer in the headlights when I asked what happened to the kahili (the royal standards) that used to flank the thrones; the museum curator who told my assistant things over a beer on a dark beach that I could never quote; the partisan for Queen Emma who to this day has nothing good to say about Queen Lili‘uokalani, and vice versa; and the professors who are wise to the games, who have smiled and said, “Well, good luck with all that.” It was an interesting atmosphere in which to research and write a book.
So, at the end of the day, what do we trust readers to be able to handle? With apologies to the theorists, education majors, and purveyors of political correctness, I say, all of it. The limiting factor, I believe, has not been what readers are capable of assimilating, but the skill, nuance, and honesty of the presentation.
The great David McCullough, author of John Adams and a shelf of other brilliant books, once said in an interview that history is too important a subject to trust to historians. They have too many axes to grind, hobby horses to ride, theories to tout, tenure to win, colleagues to impress or disparage. Too often, the facts of the history are hijacked to hammer around those models. Purely objective history, though, is an ideal, and probably beyond human authorship. Nevertheless, honest brokers making an honest effort to understand the past are not going to freak out the public.
The first two reviews of Captive Paradise, from mainland sources who read advance page proofs, have praised it for being balanced, evenhanded, and nuanced. But when finished books hit the islands? A former roommate of mine now living in Kailua read the manuscript and emailed me, “I foresee ‘iwi in your mailbox, hopefully not yours.” ‘Iwi is the Hawaiian word for “bones.” I don’t know, we’ll see.
JAMES L. HALEY is a critically acclaimed historian and biographer. His books have been praised by Publishers Weekly who called Passionate Nation: An Epic History of Texas “Outstanding.” USA Today called his book Wolf: The Lives of Jack London “fascinating,” and The Wall Street Journal said that Haley “surpasses Irving Stone.” His latest book is Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii.