Friday, February 20, 2009

Fading into Obscurity

I've written about this topic before, but the poignancy of the idea really came home to me last night as I finished The Big Knives by Bruce Lancaster. It's sad to me to see a book slowly fade out of popular culture (only three used copies of The Big Knives are available on Amazon). It's even sadder when the book is historical fiction and the subject of the book is being forgotten - maybe for good.

The Big Knives is the story of George Rogers Clark's campaign into the area that is now Illinois and Indiana during the Revolutionary War. With fewer than 200 men, Clark captured Kaskaskia and Cahokia with no resistance. When he heard that the British commander Henry Hamilton had taken Vincennes (a settlement along the Wasbash River), Clark marched his small army across Illinois in mid-winter to re-take Vincennes. Besides the cold weather one would expect of a mid-winter campaign, Clark's men also dealt with flood waters (sometimes up to their shoulders) and toward the end, a lack of food. Yet Clark apparently had the personal magnetism and leadership to inspire his men to keep going. Thanks to Clark's ability to bluff - and the marksmanship of his Kentucky and Virginia volunteers - within days of the Americans' arrival at Vincennes, Hamilton agreed to unconditional surrender. This gave the young United States control of land area equal to that of the original thirteen colonies. What makes this more impressive is that Clark was only 25 at the time. As the historical epilogue to The Big Knives points out, "Clark's actions in the Ohio Region during the Revolution were vital to the ultimate success of the American cause."

However, as the epilogue also notes, "His country has almost forgotten him." That was written in 1964, and I'm afraid the situation hasn't improved in the 45 years since. Now, maybe my education was inadequate, but I never heard of George Rogers Clark in any of my history classes, high school or college. Granted, I didn't take a course that focused on the American Revolution; surely Clark gets his due in such courses. But I think my point is still valid. For the majority of the American public, George Rogers Clark is forgotten - and I think that's so sad.

Originally, I planned to read this book one time and then get rid of it. It's one my son picked up at a discard sale from his school library, and it's not in the greatest shape (as you might expect after years of service in a high school library!). The book also didn't especially grab me - it had a lot of detail about the business end of the campaign, which was mildly interesting to me as part of the history but which didn't seem all that important to the plot. Finally, I thought Lancaster had some "hero worship" of Clark going on, and that just seemed silly.

Then I Googled Clark to see how much of the story was true and how much was Lancaster's embellishment -- and I found out very little of it was embellishment! Clark deserved the adulation! That changed my attitude toward the book completely. I'm going to keep it, mainly because I want to do my part to keep Clark's memory from disappearing. Maybe someday when my grandchildren are cleaning out my house, they'll find this book, and maybe one of them will read it -- and George Rogers Clark and Lancaster's telling of his tale will live on.


Nan Hawthorne said...

I have good news. I distinctly remember George Rogers Clark from our fourth grade American history book. It was set up with a chapter each on a bunch of American luminaries, and to tell you the truth, he is the only one from I remember.

I suppose the collective memory is like the human mind.. we keep kicking the overload out or into the catacombs. Sounds like someone should start a "Lest We Forget" blog... perhaps oriented to junior and high school age kids?

That's why I like doing History amnd Women.. we can do obscure women. It needs a brother blog. You game?


Augustina Peach said...

Now that's what I need - another blog!!! lol

But...that would be a great subject for a blog.