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Alexandra Petri’s US History Review: if You’re Going to Lie, Lie Gig – and Funny

The Washington Post columnist nails conservative attempts to rewrite the American story but is sure to keep the jokes flowing

In the 18th century, sexting was much more difficult. It had to be conducted by letter, of course, resulting in long delays and messages arriving out of order – particularly if you were on opposite sides of the Atlantic, as John and Abigail Adams were in the late 1770s.

Incredibly, we now have a record of their attempts to exchange lewd notes, published this month in Alexandra Petri’s US History: Important American Documents (I Made Up). The Washington Post humor columnist takes us on a tour of centuries of US history, including a first-hand look at the Adamses struggling to confirm how many petticoats and long shirts have been removed at any point in a year-and-a-half-long correspondence, interrupted by concerns over the health of their cows and a particularly lascivious note from Benjamin Franklin.

It’s one of dozens of very funny essays stretching from the arrival of Europeans in the Americas to the presidency of Donald Trump. At a time when many elected officials are seeking to rewrite history to make America look better, “why stop at saying slavery was not so bad or Andrew Jackson was a swell guy? Why not actually commit to the principle of the thing and insert all the bizarre documents that you think ought to be there?” Petri writes.

“If you’re going to lie about the past, lie big!”

Petri works in a huge variety of formats: letters, poetry, scripts, maps. Important early documents include a European’s guide to naming places: (Options: “name of king but put town on the end”, “New [place you just left]”, “your ethnic group, plural, but put ‘boro’ on the end”); a guide to toys for Puritan parents (“There is nothing silly about this putty. It is plain, functional putty that can be used to imprint passages of scripture”); and a more realistic take on the minutemen, titled The Hour Men, because what if you need snacks or misplace your musket?

Later we witness the author and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton trapped in a romcom while planning the landmark Seneca Falls convention, “because whenever a work-oriented woman goes to a small town for any reason, the town tries to seize her and put her in a Hallmark romance”. Stanton knows she “really ought to work on the Declaration of Sentiments,” Petri writes. “But for the first time in her life, she was feeling sentiments rather than just declaring them.”

There’s a record of what civil war photographers said to posing troops: “Say: ‘Everyone I love will soon be dead!’ But don’t say it with your mouth, say it with your eyes.’” And there are plenty of literary parodies, including musing on what Edgar Allan Poe’s work would have been like had he just had a good handyman – maybe that telltale heart could have been removed and the House of Usher could have remained standing – and a rewriting of Fahrenheit 451 that dares to ask how, if books are banned, there are still enough being printed for book-burners to have a full-time job.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan eating on TV trays in the White House living quarters, 6 November 1981.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan eating on TV trays in the White House living quarters, 6 November 1981. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

More recent documents include a record of what Nancy Reagan’s psychic began predicting after she realized her words were affecting policy: “A romantic partner continues to be receptive to your influence. Consider urging him to do something about the Aids crisis.”

Visual elements feature a blend of Thoreau and a perennially missing man, in the form of “Where’s Walden?”, and a PowerPoint presentation by Nikola Tesla’s friends, concerned that the physicist is in love with a pigeon (which is something he actually admitted to, one of several genuine pieces of history I learned from this book).

Petri’s writing is consistently witty and erudite without the slightest hint of pretentiousness, and her tone is generally jovial and upbeat. Most of the book will be accessible to anyone who paid attention in high school history class, though there are a few essays with prerequisites: a spoof of the writer Shirley Jackson, for instance, went over my head despite a dim memory that I was forced to read The Lottery somewhere along the line. As is generally the case with parody, the better you know the original, the funnier it will be.

“If you’re going to lie, lie big.” But Petri’s lies spring from vast knowledge of the facts of US history. If you can make the 19th-century debate over monetary policy funny, you’re clearly on to something.

Source : The Guardian