I have sad news to report this morning. Last night my grandfather died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 97, or at least as unexpectedly as one can at that age. I find it difficult to eulogize my grandfather since, like so many men of his generation, he tended toward silence and stoicism.
The story he most loved to tell was about his experiences serving in World War II. The Army sent him from New York to California by train, and he felt that the experience proved that there was nothing to see in the United States except lifeless, flat land and whistle stop stations. They sent him to India, and he crossed the subcontinent again by train and felt that the experience proved that India was nothing but poverty and mud, with nothing to see but train stations and hovels. They sent him to Egypt, and he similarly found Port Said an uninteresting waste and Egypt an empty hell-scape of sand. As a result, he decided the world held nothing worth seeing except poverty and war, and he spent the next seven decades at home, rarely venturing much farther than two towns over.
But he was also the kind of person who strived to build a better life. In the postwar years, he and my grandmother started their family in a subsidized housing complex, and my grandfather saved up to buy a plot of land the next block over and built his own midcentury modern ranch house by hand, himself, in the hours after work and on weekends. Even into his 90s he still worked on making home improvements and repairs. On the other hand, he wasn’t keen on the idea of having neighbors, so he bought the adjoining lot as well, and it has sat empty and unused since the 1950s so he wouldn’t have to deal with anyone living next door.
It’s hard to imagine how much change has occurred since 1916, when my grandfather was born. Back then there was still a Tsar in Russia and Franz Joseph still sat on the Austro-Hungarian throne. Italians like my grandfather were subject to discrimination and prejudice—recall H. P. Lovecraft’s description of ethnic minorities in “The Horror at Red Hook”: “The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another […] this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence…”; or in “The Haunter of the Dark,” where Italian-Americans are superstitious, frightened rustics. And yet by the end of his life, my grandfather was able to watch Fox News (which he did daily, right up until the end) and complain himself about an ill-defined “those people” who were “destroying this country” and “outbreeding us,” the “us” being, of course, white people.
I have to blame Fox News for that; my grandfather had been a supporter of FDR in his 20s and JFK in his 40s and loved Bill and Hillary Clinton in his 70s and 80s, before age kept him inside more and he gradually narrowed his television choices to Judge Judy, Fox News, and TCM, especially after CBS fired his favorite news anchor, Dan Rather. Bill O’Reilly, he said, “tells it like it is,” just like Judge Judy.
But I won’t dwell on this more. Instead, let me finish by sharing an interesting passage I came across while doing some unrelated research yesterday afternoon. In 1986 Peter G. Stone conducted a survey to find out why people in Britain were interested in the past and how they went about learning about the past. He discussed the results in R. Layton’s edited 1989 volume Who Needs the Past?: Indigenous Values and Archaeology. His first finding was a distressing report that hundreds of interviewees refused to take his survey because they claimed to know nothing about the past. His second finding was that archaeologists are systematically excluding the less educated by focusing too heavily on an “academic” rather than an exciting presentation of material—which has yet to change! But Britain being Britain, Stone noted that fewer Britons watched archaeology-themed documentaries than televised snooker. Forty-two percent of survey respondents felt that Hollywood movies could be trusted to provide “reasonably accurate” information about the past, and many cited One Million Years BC (where dinosaurs and humans coexist) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (with its magical Ark) as “accurate” films. One of the most disturbing findings was that Britons felt that no one can really know what happened in the past; therefore, Hollywood’s conclusions were as likely to be correct as archaeologists’.
His section on book reading deserves to be quoted in full. In the following the parenthetical numbers refer to the assigned numbers of survey respondents, not to the total number of respondents making a claim.
Less than half of the respondents showed any real interest in books on archaeology. Of those who claimed to read about archaeology (or history), the majority found it difficult to recall specific authors or titles of books. The normal response was versed in a period or thematic manner – thus respondent (151) enjoyed reading about Egyptians and Romans, and (107) concentrated on New Zealand’s history and anthropology. When authors were mentioned, it was striking that the most frequently named was Von Daniken.
These results were all the more remarkable because by 1986, the 1960s-era ancient astronaut craze had already burned out, having fizzled in the late 1970s when too much fringe product entered an oversaturated market. The 1980s were the low ebb of fringe history, which is why it seemed like a shock when fringe history roared back to live in the mid-1990s. It is sad but not surprising that readers do not distinguish between mainstream and fringe history books.
I wonder what would happen if a similar survey were conducted today, either here or in Britain. I have a feeling that books would be all but eliminated as a category, and I have a sneaking suspicion that cable TV programs like Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed would show up as important sources for how people claim they learn about the past. One thing that wouldn’t change is Stone’s complaint that archaeologists are failing to make the past accessible and exciting to the general public in terms they can understand and embrace, leaving it to journalists and fringe figures to fill the gap between public curiosity and academic insularity.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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