“You are a prize bigot and un-American idiot. TAKE ME OFF YOUR VILE MAILING LIST NOW!!!”
If you write or talk about politically charged issues for a living, you get angry calls, letters, and emails. They’re par for the course. If critics flag an error or an important argument you missed, you appreciate the corrective. Otherwise, you just move on to your next deadline, seeking to avoid both the Scylla of vengeful retaliation and the Charybdis of endless quibbling. As a young writer, I learned from wise editors that because fury is so powerful a motivator, always expect to receive more condemnation than praise. (Getting ratioed was a thing long before Twitter was a thing.) But when the above message recently popped into my email box, I couldn’t just ignore it and move on — because it was from one of those very editors who’d once schooled me about how to handle hostile readers.
Here’s what happened. Just before the publication of my first novel, a historical fantasy largely set during the American Revolution, I created a newsletter to update friends, colleagues, and early readers about my progress. The former editor in question was on the list. She’d read previous newsletters without complaint. What set her off, however, was a message I sent about the need to tell more stories exalting the best of America: freedom, constitutional government, invention, tolerance, and dynamism.
“In recent years, left-wing activists and ‘woke’ scholars have made a concerted effort to pull the Founders and other American heroes from their pedestals, sometimes literally and violently,” I wrote. “Theirs is not an attempt to gain a better understanding of American history. Their goal is to rewrite that history as a sequence of tyrannies, miseries, and outrages — and then to use their rewritten history both as a cudgel for bashing their political adversaries and as a crowbar for wrenching America free from its long traditions of freedom, order, and constitutional government.”
Some of these would-be canceled heroes are characters in my novel Mountain Folk, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Daniel Boone. I noted in my original message that all of them, like all of us, were fallen creatures. Many made poor decisions. Some made terrible ones. But if we judge historical actors more harshly than we would want ourselves to be judged — on their worst choices instead of their best ones, on the then-common conventions they merely reflected instead of the heroic acts that make them truly distinctive — then we’ll be left with no heroes at all. Living together in a large, sprawling country filled with people of varying backgrounds and values, we can’t afford to let that happen. Shared stories of heroic Americans bring us together.
Here’s something else we can’t afford to let happen: indignation supplanting conversation. Once I got over my initial disappointment at receiving her angry message, I sent my former editor an invitation to talk.
What she doesn’t yet realize, I suspect, is that my recent turn from policy journalism to fiction writing is motivated in part by a desire to expand the pantheon of American heroes to include more women, minorities, and dissenting voices. To introduce young (and not-so-young) readers to the courageous lives and exciting adventures of heroes such as the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the Cherokee peacemaker Nanyehi, and the intrepid Manuel Antonio Chaves, who began his military career defending his native New Mexico against an American invasion and ended it fighting for the Union during the Civil War.
To broaden and deepen our understanding of our country’s rich history, in response to scrupulously confirmed new facts or rigorously tested new theories, need not harm America’s founding principles or national unity. It need not result in canceled heroes. That’s what I plan to tell my former editor, and more, if I get the opportunity. She taught me a lot in my youth. Now I think there’s much more for us to learn together.
Joe Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation. His latest book is Mountain Folk (Defiance Press, 2021).