Alexandra Petri's US History: Important American Documents (I Made Up)
By Alexandra Petri
Norton; hardcover; $27.95
Alexandra Petri is a humorist and columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why, which was a Thurber Prize finalist, and A Field Guide to Awkward Silence. Her satire has appeared in McSweeney's and the New Yorker's Daily Shouts and Murmurs.
The new book, Alexandra Petri's US History: Important American Documents (I Made Up), is a new, hilarious work of historical humor that uses imagined documents to create a laugh-out-loud, irreverent takedown of our nation's complicated past.
There's a transcript of the time Emily Dickinson was a contestant on Family Feud, field notes from the rhinoceros sent undercover to jeep and eye on Theodore Roosevelt and his proclivity for big-game hunting, Walt Whitman's poem extolling the virtues of the YMCA, Aaron Sorkin's version of the Gettysburg Address, and a look at Thomas Edison's other ideas.
Petri writes, "Some people look at our history textbooks and say, 'Oh no! These books do not adequately express that all the Founders were perfect, radiant beings of pure light. We need a book that does that, and explains that America is the only place in the world where pulling yourself up by the bootstraps really works!' This is not that book.
"Other people look at our history textbooks and say, 'Yikes. American history is terrible in lots of ways we have not adequately reckoned with. We need a book that does a more accurate job of teaching about the whole past with all its failures and contradictions.' I agree - but this is not that book either.
"A third group of people look at our history textbooks and say, 'Oh no! We have only one president's weird sex letters, and that president is Warren G. Harding! We need a book that fixes that!'
"This is that book."
This is very creative, entertaining book that satirizes obvious American history, as well as things people may not think about, such as, "The Night They Came Up with All the Currency," where she takes a look at the nickel, dime, quarter, and penny and explains what went into the design of them.
There are also sections that reveal things such as the "Top Toys for Puritan Parents," on how their children must have had toys even though the Puritans were strict religious types; "1950s Recipes," such as Bouillon Slaw, Dill Pickle Panopticon, and Cheese with a Flag in It; and "Julia Child's Cookbook That Made It Much Clearer She Was a Spy," which discloses her original draft of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that would made made it less surprising if it were published.
Petri also discerns "The Original Plan for the Federalist Papers," goes through the topic of all 85 of them, and writes of it in this excerpt: "After the Constitutional Convention, it was necessary to convince people to ratify the resulting Constitution. That was why James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay decided to write the Federalist Papers under the name Publius - a set of pseudonymous publications anticipating the difficulties and objections people would have to the Constitution and defending it against them. They published their arguments in a series of eighty-five separate essays.
What no one knows (because, in the strictest, most literal sense, there is no evidence whatsoever that it happened) is that Hamilton thought it would be more exciting for readers if there were a plot to keep them coming back week after week. 'What is going to keep them tuning in?' he asked. 'These are way too episodic! This is a serialized form, and we are doing nothing with it.' He spent many nights haranguing Madison and Jay about the main character. 'We need to get people into this Publius guy so they invest in him and want to know why they should care about what he thinks about the Constitution!' Eventually he convinced the others to at least try to map out the basic plot, but for some reason Jay and Madison ultimately nixed the idea.
Federalist 1: General introduction. The Importance of the Subject. Publius will offer public arguments. General plan of the series, to show the utility of the Union to political prosperity, etc. Publius saves a cat from a tree so we know we're rooting for him.
Federalist 2: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence. We meet Publius's roommates.
Federalist 3: The Same Subject Continued. Publius makes a discovery that changes everything."