Shenkman hits the nail on the head in describing misconceptions about American history as "cherished myths". Certain stories about our nation have become so revered that most of us would never even think to question them. However, as these myths are appropriated by politicians intent on returning us to a past which never existed, it becomes ever more important to look at their claims with a skeptical eye. Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History helps the reader to do just that, piercing the blind of adoration with which we have covered our collective past. I particularly recommend the sections on the Founding Fathers, War, The Good Old Days and Education as antidotes to the claims of family values fanatics.
Where's the Big Picture?
This book is a great introduction to an honest re-scripting of history, but it only goes so far. Like most historians, Shenkman is reluctant to analyze. Instead of drawing any broad conclusions about misconceptions of history, he is content to list specific instances in which common ideas about the past are mistaken. Where Shenkman had the opportunity to present profound insights, he instead has collected interesting tidbits.
For example, Shenkman devotes an entire chapter on what he calls shrines, locations that are associated with historic events. He informs us that Betsy Ross never lived at the Betsy Ross home in Philadelphia, Lincoln was not born in the Lincoln log cabin in Hogdenville, Kentucky and Stephen Foster did not write "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Rowan Manor House.
So what? Such revelations really don't affect anyone except owners of tourist traps. History is interesting because of the relevance of ideas about the past on present day matters, not because of who slept where. Shenkman writes like a History teacher who asks his students to memorize information instead of understanding trends. Because of this nit-picking approach, Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History is better flipped through than read cover to cover. Put it on the coffee table or take it to bed with you, but don't expect to come out the wiser.
If you're interested in a broader exploration of the mis-casting of history, try Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Where Shenkman skips, Loewen boldly probes, creating a successful narrative instead of a merely anecdotal collage.
Another good supplement to Shenkman's book is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz, a thorough exposure of the lies of present day conservatives about the so-called "family values" of the past. Read Shenkman's chapter, "The Family" first to whet your appetite, and then dive in to Coontz's book to discover what Falwell and friends are afraid to talk about.