The following is excerpted from “Letter from a Higher Critic” by Stewart Robb, which appeared in pp. 239-244 of the collection Analog 6, ed. John W. Campbell, Conde Nast Publications 1966, 1968; Pocket Book edition 1969.
May 5, 2415
[To:] Mark Livingstone,
25 The Standards,
in your last letter you made one palpable hit, but only one: I admit that the atomic wars of the Twenty-first Century and the cataclysms of the Twenty-second Century destroyed so much of our cultural inheritance, including nearly all our Nineteenth and Twentieth Century history, that there is very little we can turn to of those times that is authentic. Apparently that is the only point we will be able to agree on.
I cannot possibly believe, for instance, as you do, that there ever did exist an Abraham Lincoln as so glowingly portrayed by our two or three surviving “history” digests; nor can I believe there ever was a World War II, at least such as they described. Wars, yes – there have always been wars, and a World War II may have occurred – but certainly not with such incredible concomitants.
In short, your history is much too fictional for me.
So pardon me if I prove my point by doing a hatchet job on this medley of stuff you seem so sure of, this history which is about as reliable and as imaginatively romantic as the Bible myths. My method of demolition will be identical to that of those commendably clearheaded iconoclasts of earlier days, the Higher Critics. What they did to the Bible, including the Moses and Christ legends, I shall do with our nearly equally revered American history, so-called, and perhaps more thoroughly.
Let me begin my act of demolition by making an analogy, one that is possible thanks to the fortunate survival of that now famous Lord Chumley collection of English plays. In browsing through some of these playwrights of the Elizabethan, Restoration and even later periods I noticed that they had a cute habit of giving names to their characters that fitted the parts they played in the plots. For instants, Sir Giles Overreach was overreaching, Abhorson was a nasty fellow, Sir Fopling Flutter was an effeminate dandy, Wellborn was a fine young gentleman, and so on.
Now it is precisely this fictional method of applying names that dismays me when I see the obvious evidence of it in our so-called American history, and thus I am led to the inescapable conclusion that what so many of us regard as history is not history at all but pure romancing by flag-waving minstrels, though it has come down to us as sober fact. Not that this legend-building is anything new. The Song of Roland and the deeds of Arthur and the Knights of the Grail were all once considered historical. Those romances, with a little history mixed in, or simply the troubadours’, skalds’ or minstrels’ exploitation and exultation of their respective heroes and lands.
Now let me get down to brass tacks with higher criticism and start in with “World War II”. This terrific conflict, so the story goes, resulted in the victory of right over wrong, of decency over tyranny, of the Anglo-Saxon peoples (mainly) over the wicked Teutons! There was a big bad wolf in this fairytale named Adolf Hitler, a German ogre who burned people alive in ovens by the millions and nearly conquered the world! Now don’t you think that whoever made up this part of the yarn knew that the name Adolf in Old High German means Wolf Prince? And isn’t it a coincidence that he descended like a wolf on the fold of the innocent sheep nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia and other helpless countries? This name is a fancy of the poets, surely!
Let us proceed. The great nation France is beaten to its knees by the mighty marauder, whereupon a folk-hero named De Gaulle arises who fights on against all odds, and later, with the coming of peace, assumes rule over a united Gaul. His name was beautifully tailored for his part. Note that it means “of France” or “of the French”, indicating that he was a true patriot, French of the French.
The names of the Russian leaders in this war also indicate the poet’s imaginative pen. The Wolf Prince meets with real resistance in his invasion of Russia, because the opposition here was headed by Stalin, which means Steel, and his head henchman Molotov, which signifies Hammer. (Probably the names also represented the Hammer and Sickle, symbols of the Communist cause.)
This mythical invasion of Russia by the German tyrant is no doubt simply a furbishing up of the earlier yarn of an invasion of the same land by the equally fabulous Napoleon, that is, Apollyon, the Destroyer, which the name means in Greek. Both conquerors invade with mighty multitudes, and both conquerors were trounced. Justice must triumph!
Now across the channel, at the outset of the Great War, so the story goes on, the British Empire was ruled by a mere servant-leader, fittingly named Chamberlain. But so desperate did the danger of the Wolf Prince’s invasion become that the chamberlain was forced to give way to the Master Defender of the British Isles, Churchill, the Church on the Hill, of course, representing the staunch, unshakable faith of the stubborn bulldog British. This name was clearly chosen for its positive, spiritual sound.
And across the Atlantic, where the Giant Ally of the Church on the Hill was preparing for war, the names of the protagonists were equally descriptive of their functions. As America was one of the good nations the names were selected for their affirmative sound. The great war-time president was Roosevelt, which is Dutch for Field of Roses. A name of excellent odor! Fabled to have written the presidents wartime and other speeches was Rosenman, that is, the Rose Man, the gardener who takes care of the flowers of speech of the Field of Roses. And the secretary of the treasury, the man who had had charge of the finances that kept the nation functioning was Morgenthau, symbolizing that he supplied the refreshing morning dew for the roses. And the secretary of state, that is, the ship of state, was of course good old Hull.
Well, I could go on and on, for our romancing historians enjoyed the creation of such curious coincidences. Here’s another obvious one: just as they had dusted off the Napoleon Apollyon legend to reapply it to the Wolf Prince, so in like manner they borrowed a still earlier so-called historical event, reversed it to disguise the source, and applied it to the Great War. In 1066, so it was fabled and generally believed, Normandy invaded England. At the head of the invading troops, so the minstrels reported, was a minstrel-warrior named Taillefer, a hero who struck the first blow of the war. So our latter-day minstrels fabled just had as Normandy invaded England, England and the Allies now invaded Normandy. And to the leader of the conquering forces the poet historians gave that same name of Taillefer, only this time they translated it first into German, Eisenhower. Both names, you are aware, mean Iron-Hewer, a most fitting epithet for men of war!
Now let me ask a rhetorical question. Do you really believe that these names: Adolf Hitler, De Gaulle, Molotov, Stalin, Chamberlain, Churchhill, Roosevelt, Rosenman, Morgenthau, Hull and Eisenhower could have sprung up by chance? And yet if they are real historical names, chance and chance alone must have operated in their selection. Therefore, I say that this history, that you and so many others credit as true history, is as legendary as the Bible stories, and for similar reasons. True history is meaningless and springs by happenstance from a meaningless world.
I note that you also mentioned in your letters, and frequently, that American folk-hero, Abraham Lincoln, and you actually seem to be convinced there was such a man. I, too, should certainly like to be able to believe the human race capable of producing so noble a being, but here is just another instance where the facts firmly forbid me to do so. As usual, let us first analyze the name. Abraham was well chosen. It immediately suggests father Abraham, the Bible patriarch. The name in Hebrew means Father of a Multitude. All this Lincoln was. He loomed above the Civil War like a Colossus, holding the nation together and keeping it one and indivisible. Preserver of his nation, saviour of his people, he was veritably the father figure of a multitude, was he not? And a father figure on which the conspirators could vent their malice.
Notice, too, how frequently he is likened to the Savior of Mankind…Our poet-patriots made up a perfect parallel between him and the solar myth savior of mankind. As follows:
Christ was a martyr.
Lincoln was a martyr.
Christ was slain on Good Friday.
Lincoln was slain on Good Friday!
So Lincoln joins the crucified saviors of mankind.
Now whatever the story is, it is not history. It could not possibly be. It stands to reason that the assassins of Lincoln would not have liken him to the All Good Man, so they could not have martyrized him on the one and only day that would in the minds of mankind ineffacably symbolize him as a type of Christ. Understand the story for what it was, a sentimental, Bible-type legend, and the creation of such a parallel is poetically, beautifully justifiable – though, of course, extremely far-fetched even for fiction.
No, sir, Abraham Lincoln is to be added to Moses and Christ as another myth!…You see, friend, a great deal of what has survived of our American history is, in my opinion pure legend, created by very human poet-patriots, whose burning desire was to show our nation in the most favorable light possible…Such bosh warms my heart but it splits my head. It’s beyond reason…