Book Review: Groundless
by Gregory Evans Dowd
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016
“This is no comprehensive encyclopedia of the bogus; that would fill a library, perhaps a server,” writes University of Michigan historian Gregory Evans Dowd in his fascinating new book Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier. He concentrates instead on a handful of fake stories circulating in the decades leading up to the American Revolution – stories like the claim that Spanish New World colonialism was merely a mania for gold, or that a corrupt American government handed out smallpox-infected blankets to Indian tribes, or that the occupying British forces conducted a vigorous trade in colonial settler scalps. And in order to parse these stories, it’s first important to define his terms – at least to the extent that’s possible in the murk of rhetorical concepts inolved:
To name a claim “rumor” is to call into question its truth, its origin, its authorship; the same holds for legend. Rumor draws force from its currency – from its bearing on events at the time of its telling. Legend is historical; it draws force from its explicit claim to cultural authority. Both rumor and legend can only thrive in a medium, a social context, of shared expectations.
The genius of Groundless is to turn the rumors and legends around and use them as tools to examine the social context itself. “When writers accept [Ben] Franklin’s fabrications that enemy Britons bought settler scalps and sent them, by the bale, to their superiors,” he writes. “or when scholars reduce Spanish colonization to an essentially violent mineral obsession, they ignore the stern grip of legend.”
Dowd very skillfully (and with a gift for phrasing; lines like “Bounties did little that hate did not do better” abound throughout the book) examines the primary sources in order to determine whether or not contemporaries on the frontier were even discussing the possibilities that later became settled legends. And he takes the legend themselves as important primary sources – not for what actually happened but for what kinds of neuroses were lurking in the minds of the colonists. It’s a remarkable inquiry, the kind you wish were longer and more inclusive, and Dowd’s conclusions are thoroughly convincing:
Groundless stories demand our regard, for they, however unreliable, commanded as much attention in early America as did crops, weather, and shipping news. Groundless stories both shaped and reflected perceptions on the colonial and early national frontiers. Because those tales found their way into manuscripts and publications, they strikingly reveal perceptions to us.
Groundless takes on an added, darker significance when readers take into account the fact that such rumors and legends, metamorphosed lies that tap into very real social fears, aren’t restricted colonial times. It’s exactly such a phenomenon that would allow the leading Republican candidate for US President to tell stories about seeing thousands of Muslims dancing with joy during the attacks of September 11, 2001 – a sight for which there’s no evidence and that the candidate couldn’t have seen in any case, that is, a patent falsehood. The encyclopedia of the bogus needs to get bigger and bigger.