Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Historians ruin everything...

Our fondness for history as we-want-it-to-have-been is constantly being trampled by persnickety researchers armed with little more than facts and evidence.  The latest take-down for me is the Pony Express.
That the Pony Express generated such income would have gladdened the hearts of the venture’s original founders—William Hepburn Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Bradford Waddell—who never made a dime from the business. The heroic, nearly 2,000-mile delivery of mail across the country hemorrhaged money, from the first day a rider saddled up until the click of the transcontinental telegraph shut it down 78 weeks later. The Pony Express was one of the most colossal and celebrated failures in American business history, but its legacy, as the sale at Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries suggests, remains an enduring and revered piece of the Old West myth. Even today, old-timers in the remotest parts of the American West still speak of “the days of the Pony.” Few figures in that region’s history loom larger than those true riders of the purple sage, whom Mark Twain called “the swift phantoms of the desert.”
In its own day, the Express caused quite a stir. By beginning where the train and the telegraph line stopped at St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1860, the service closed an information gap that had long frustrated both coasts. The Pacific slope was a far country in those days: mail from the East took not days or weeks but many months to cross the nation by stagecoach or to be shipped around the stormy Cape Horn or through the fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama. The Pony cut the time of moving information overland to 10 days or less, and on this count at least it proved a spectacular success. It initially cost customers $5 to send one letter, although rates would crumble as the firm desperately tried to generate business. Still, that was a lot of money in 1860, when a laborer in Kansas might make only that in a week. Patrons of the fast service thus tended to be banks, newspapers, and officials, including diplomats. “[The riders] got but little frivolous correspondence to carry,” noted Mark Twain.
“No enterprise of the kind in its day was ever celebrated on the Pacific coast with more enthusiasm than the arrival of the first pony express,” wrote historians Frank A. Root and William E. Connelley in The Overland Stage to California (1901). “News of the arrival of the first mail across the continent by the fleet pony was published with flaming head-lines in a number of the coast evening papers.” Huge crowds assembled in San Francisco to welcome the brave rider who had brought news so quickly from so far. Only a few observers made negative comments, claiming that the entire venture was a mere publicity stunt designed to drum up more lucrative mail contracts.
The privately financed Pony Express was hastily thrown together in late 1859 and began operations on the evening of April 3, 1860. After the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad train arrived late that day with the mail, a rider and his horse were ferried across the Missouri, heading west into history. That cargo’s goal was Sacramento, capital of the state of California, which had been rocketed into the Union on the heels of the gold rush just 10 years before. At the same time, another rider had set out eastward from California.
Piggybacking on existing posts along the Oregon Trail and other established overland routes, the Pony Express set up operations with approximately 190 way stations about 10 to 12 miles apart. Someone had been hired to feed and care for the horses at each stop. The average station, wrote the celebrated British explorer Richard Burton, who followed the route while the Pony was running, “is about as civilized as the Galway shanty [Burton loathed the Irish], or the normal dwelling-place in Central Equatorial Africa.” The floor of the “Robber’s Roost” station in present-day eastern Nevada was “a mass of soppy black soil strewed with ashes, gobs of meat offals, and other delicacies,” and the roof leaked, too. There were no real windows but what he described as “portholes.” “Beneath the framework were heaps of rubbish, saddles, cloths, harness, and straps, sacks of wheat, oats, meal, and potatoes, defended from the ground by underlying logs, and dogs nestled where they found room.” The station had running water, he noted—an actual spring leaked continually inside, maintaining “a state of eternal mud.”
Riders frequently changed horses at most stations, usually riding no more than 100 miles before being relieved. Though speed was required, they rarely galloped, an activity particularly hazardous when traversing deserts pocked with prairie-dog holes that could easily break a horse’s leg. On the plains the riders often had to navigate around the still enormous herds of buffalo. Keep moving, the riders were instructed, but take no unnecessary risks. [A little more after my exceptionally liberal excerpting]
C'mon - they weren't galloping flat out?  No wonder the trains won.

But on the other hand they can help us begin to grasp some of the true horrors of history. I read long ago about the self-inflicted famine the Chinese people suffered during the Great Leap Forward (which I actually remember reading about in Weekly Reader in grade school). 
One of the most horrifying tales uncovered by Yang in the course of his research came from Xinyang, a small city in Henan province, where the famine was at its worst. When he visited, Yang was not directed to the official archives as he’d expected, but instead sent to meet Yu Dehong, a retired cadre from the local waterworks bureau. In their own quiet way, the Xinyang officials might have been giving Yang a helping hand.
Yu was what you might call the local history crank – except the stories he nagged people about did not concern municipal landmarks or the arrival of the city’s first steam train. As the political secretary to the Xinyang mayor in the late 1950s, Yu was an eyewitness to a mini-Holocaust in his hometown, its surrounding villages and even his own family.
Mao had ordered Chinese farms to be collectivised in the late 1950s and forced many peasants who had once productively grown grain to put their energies into building crude backyard blast furnaces instead. As part of this “Great Leap Forward”, Mao’s acolytes predicted that food production would be doubled, even tripled in a few years and that steel production would soon surpass output in advanced western countries. The new rural communes began reporting whopping, fake harvests to meet Mao’s demand for record grain output. When the government took its share of the grain based on the exaggerated figures, little was left for ordinary people to eat.
According to the most conservative calculations, one million people out of a population of eight million in Xinyang died between 1958 and 1961. Yu was often gently advised to drop the issue in the years afterwards. Instead, he wrote a detailed account in his own name and submitted it to the local party secretary. “Some people asked me, ‘Haven’t you committed enough mistakes?’” he said. “But if the official history won’t include this material, then my private history will. I have the materials to back me up.”
Xinyang was generally blessed with good harvests, unlike much of Henan, known as the “land of beggars” for its history of impoverishment and famines. But any advantage the city had was undermined by the officials who ruled over it. At the time, Henan and Xinyang were overseen by radical leftists fanatically devoted to Mao who viewed the grain harvest solely through the prism of violent class struggle. Yu remembers vividly a series of surreal meetings in 1959, when the 18 counties in Xinyang city reported their harvest for the year. After a furious debate in which each county reported wildly exaggerated figures, they settled on a figure about three to four times the real size of the harvest. The distortion was more than enough to set in train the disaster that followed. It was not long before mass starvation began to grip the city and surrounding areas.
As winter turned to spring in the early months of 1960, a thick smell of death began to rise out of the landscape. Yu remembers the change of season clearly. Walking around the semi-rural enclave, he saw thousands of corpses strewn alongside the roads and in the fields. During the winter, the bodies had hardened and set in the cramped, bent shapes in which people had died. They looked like they had been taken out of a freezer and then randomly scattered across the landscape. Some of the corpses were clothed, but the garments had been ripped from others, and flesh was missing from their buttocks and legs. In the first days of spring, the corpses began to thaw, emitting a sickly smell that permeated the everyday life of a shell-shocked local citizenry.
The surviving residents protested later that they had been too short-handed and exhausted to give the dead the dignity of a burial. They blamed the disfigured corpses on hungry dogs, whose eyes, according to rumours which swept the area, had turned red after gnawing at human flesh. “That is not true,” said Yu. “All the dogs had already been eaten by humans. How could there be dogs left at the time?” The corpses hadn’t been eaten by ravenous animals. They had been cannibalised by local residents. Many people in Xinyang over that winter, and the two that followed, owed their survival to consuming dead members of their families, or stray corpses they could get their hands on. [More]
Of all the many benefits of the Internet, it may be the powerful corrective action of meticulous fact-checking (which essentially describes historians for me) that yields the biggest payback. Our ability to imagine and reshape history to our own ends is famous, and at least we will have access to other resources to inform our opinions.

If history is alive in China, it can be alive everywhere.  It makes me hopeful for all of us. 

1 comment:

Christopher Corbett said...

You might enjoy

Orphans Preferred:The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express by Christopher Corbett
Random House/Broadway Books