Learning From Cracked History

StartedWithMarxby Timothy Lane4/9/15
One problem that has been discussed here occasionally is the matter of teaching children subjects such as history. The ultimate in what not to do, of course, is in Prince Caspian, where the Telmarine history texts are as boring and false as it’s possible to be. The ideal is to find books that represent the opposite. Certainly those of us who appreciate history can think of many entertaining and informative books, but how many people who do not share this interest would enjoy them?

One approach is history as gossip. Esther Friesner took this attitude at a reading once, discussing the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in that fashion. (G. Gordon Liddy used the same topic in a class for his fellow prisoners once. One was delighted to note that an Italian woman like Catherine de Medici had known how to deal with her problems.)

Another approach is to use humor. This can be done by presenting actual history in an amusing fashion, as Will Cuppy did in The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. I rather liked his approach to Maria Theresa at the First Partition of Poland. Austria was allied with Poland at the time, but participated anyway. Frederick the Great had cynically noted, “She wept, but she kept on talking.” Cuppy took a similar approach. “Maria Theresa didn’t want to do it, so she took only 62,500 square miles.” (This was more than Prussia got.)[pullquote]I think some people might find them a means of learning more — if only so that they can understand the jokes.[/pullquote]

Another possibility, and the main focus of this article, is the poet and essayist Richard Armour. He wrote a whole series of books about history that presented a cracked version of history — a mixture of fact and parody. This leads to the interesting possibility of getting a reader to look up the reality behind the jokes. For example, in It All Started With Marx, he noted that at the end of World War II, “Stalin brought the Soviet Union into the war with Japan and humbled the Mikado in less than a week, and without fighting.” He also adds a footnote that they “Slaughtered the Pirates of Penzance, too.”

One of these books, It All Started With Columbus, was a bit of a childhood favorite; we had a version that reached the Kennedy administration, where, discussing JFK’s appointments compared to Eisenhower’s, he concludes, “The only suggestion of the Army was in the person of a non-com, Sergeant Shriver, who headed what was called the Peace Corpse, peace having become a dead issue.” (My current copy is updated to go into the Nixon administration.)

Armour had a lot of fun with that one, and the potential lessons aren’t confined to history. Consider his discussion of Dutch America, with this delight: “New Amsterdam was soon swarming with wealthy Dutch traitors known as poltroons. These were bluff, hearty men who smoked long pipes and loved to eat burghers.” This could provide an opportunity for teaching the differences between traitor and trader, poltroon and patron, and burgher and burger.

Armour also had fun discussing the possible names for the new country after we became independent. “Some wanted to call it merely The Nation, others preferred The New Republic. Those who believed in States’ Rights insisted on the Untied States. Those who supported Labor wanted to call it the Union.” Later, he discusses the ill-advised “Alien and Seduction Acts” — later repealed “when it was found that seduction was also practiced by native-born citizens.”

Another favorite is his explanation for the causes of World War I. Among these were: “The Balkan powder keg, which was set off by a guy named Guy Fawkes who mistook the lower part of Europe for the lower house of Parliament. . . . “A serious shortage of paper, which made a mere scrap of it worth fighting for.” He also had a couple of others, noting in a footnote that any 3 constituted the “Triple Intent”.

His coverage of the 1920s had a lot of amusement as well. There was a man named Fall sneaking oil in teapots out of the Navy’s great dome-shaped mountain. There was Harding (who came from “a small town in Ohio called Normalcy, which he was always wanting to return to.”). The scandals upset him, “and made it hard for him to digest crab meat, which led to Coolidge.” Of course, his coverage of the latter focuses heavily on his legendary silence.

I always rather liked his coverage of the Stock Market Crash. “But suddenly, on a dark day known as Black Tuesday, the stock market, which was a big building located on Wall Street, collapsed.” The accident is attributed to a panic among stock-exchange employees when someone shouted that bears were loose in the place.” (He adds a footnote noting that the Stock Market was “Near the corner of Dun and Bradstreet.”) Today, this might make some people wonder if it’s all Sarah Palin’s fault for unleashing her Mama Grizzlies.

Armour periodically included tests with humorous questions, such as wondering if King George was unhappy because he was always third, or what would have happened at Bunker Hill if the British had been suffering from pinkeye, or how wasteful it was when an Indian took only a scalp from a Pilgrim victim. There were also a number of illustrations, such as his portrayal of “one Big Shot and Two Little Shots” in discussing gangsters.

Books like these are certainly very entertaining, and I think some people might find them a means of learning more — if only so that they can understand the jokes.

Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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17 Responses to Learning From Cracked History

  1. Jerry Richardson says:


    Very interesting article! I think this could expand into a discussion of the importance, to a free society, of history; how US universities have defaulted on that; how much propaganda has been inserted into history which is today being taught to unsuspecting students.

    Good article. I enjoyed it.

  2. Jerry Richardson says:


    There may be no Progressive who is quite as dangerous as a pseudo-history-writing Progressive—such as Howard Zinn.

    As a faculty brat in those years, I was doubly enamored of Zinn after a classmate gave me A People’s History of the United States, his now-famous victims’-eye panorama of the American experience. In my adolescent rebelliousness, I thrilled to Zinn’s deflation of what he presented as the myths of standard-issue history.

    Do you know that the Declaration of Independence charged King George with fomenting slave rebellions and attacks from “merciless Indian Savages”? That James Polk started a war with Mexico as a pretext for annexing California? That Eugene Debs was jailed for calling World War I a war of conquest and plunder?

    Perhaps you do, if you are moderately well-read in American history. And if you are very well-read, you also know that these statements themselves are problematic simplifications. But like most sixteen-year-olds, I didn’t know any of this. Mischievously—subversively—A People’s History whispered that everything I had learned in school was a sugar-coated fairy tale, if not a deliberate lie. Now I knew.
    As Jon Wiener noted in the Journal of American History, “during the early seventies … of all the changes in the profession, the institutionalization of radical history was the most remarkable.”

    It is no secret that the radical historians of the 1960s—and more basically, the infusion of that decade’s fiercely questioning spirit into intellectual life—transformed historical inquiry. Almost half a century has now passed since a new tide of work upended interpretations of subjects from the Civil War to the Cold War and legitimized whole fields of research, notably Afro-American history and women’s history.

    In short order, these new fields and frameworks became central to the discipline. This mainstreaming of radical history owes more to the flow of deep currents of academic thought than it does to the person of Howard Zinn.

    But Zinn deserves a share of responsibility. As Martin Duberman notes in his interesting but flawed biography of Zinn, A People’s History of the United States has long been a publishing sensation, having sold more than two million copies in thirty-plus years, and its transgressive vapors still beguile young minds.

    To be sure, when they get to college, many of these students continue to read books, including works of history. And some of them come to realize that Zinn’s famous book is—for reasons that Duberman admirably makes clear—a pretty lousy piece of work.

    Howard Zinn’s influential mutilations of American history

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Party in 1984 considered it important to rewrite history. Orwell was very concerned about this “mutability of the past”. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

  3. Anniel says:

    Another great cracked history is “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.” Laughed until I cried, and Bear practically needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Available here for the Kindle.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          And now featured on the Bookshelf so it won’t get lost in the clutter.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            And I put it on my list of books to look for. Of course, after we spent $185 on books at ConGlomeration last Saturday (which we did instead of calling someone to deal with our flooded-out water heater and furnace), that might be a while.

            • Jerry Richardson says:


              What is ConGlomeration?

              • Timothy Lane says:

                It’s a local SF convention. Elizabeth and I had planned to attend for the whole weekend despite the effect of going to Good Friday and Easter services on her schedule. But the torrential rains caused us to skip Friday, and at that point we also decided to skip Sunday as well. (It’s not a very large con, perhaps hurt by the unfortunate timing this year; when we came in as single-day members, I was member #321).

      • Rosalys says:

        I just put in a request for the audio version from my library. I need something good to listen to in the car.

  4. Rosalys says:

    “…who headed what was called the Peace Corpse, peace having become a dead issue.”

    Perhaps this is why Zero consistently calls it the Marine “Corpse.”

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Maybe he gets it from the Fascist Messiah. Of course, in the latter’s case it’s a matter of wishful thinking.

  5. Jerry Richardson says:


    Perhaps this is why Zero consistently calls it the Marine “Corpse.”—Rosalys

    When I read your comment, I had a fleeting and surely irrational thought. Suppose Obama used that pronunciation on purpose? Had to be just another of his many stupid and ignorant mistakes. Right?

    • Rosalys says:

      Irrational? I’m not so sure! Of course to fit that scenario we’d have to believe that Zero ain’t as dumb as he appears. Evil genius? Idiot savant? But he sure is trying to “kill” the Marine Corps along with the rest of our military.

      Rational Americans have much trouble accepting the possibility that Zero hates, from the very core of his being, this country. Or perhaps I should have said, from the very corpse of his being.

      “Breathes there the man with soul so dead…”

      Could be our President is one of the walking dead.

      Ann Barnhardt has something to say about this, today.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Yes, that was a very accurate article. And we must realize what this obvious observation means. “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Ever since the Bergdahl deal (especially the revelation that he was held by a different group from the Taliban, so the released terrorists were actually the purpose and getting a deserter back merely the excuse for it), I have considered the Black God a traitor.

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