Friday, October 15, 2004

A Tale of Two Cities:I

Paul Revere
"The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," by Grant Wood

Like a ball through space, the past does not move through time without spin. Throughout history, individuals and groups, tribes and races, religions and political parties, nations and, yes, even cities, put their spin on the past, re-spin their history, in order to improve their image. The saying that you can’t change the past is wrong. The past is constantly being changed. The past is not what it used to be, and it never will be.

I grew up in Revere, Massachusetts, a city whose past was steeped first in poverty and sin, and then, in the twentieth century, in crime and corruption. Like the nation of which it became a part, the history of my hometown was in sore need of re-spinning. The easiest thing to change about anything is its name. In 1871, the town, then called North Chelsea, renamed itself after the legendary hero of the American Revolution, Paul Revere, even though he had no connection with the town. Not only was there no connection, the real Paul Revere was no hero. That was just a legend. The real Paul Revere had fled cowardly in the only Revolutionary war battle he was ever in. No matter. Longfellow re-spun who Revere was in his famous 1861 poem “The Ride of Paul Revere,” and the rest is history, or rather myth, which is enchantingly rendered in the painting by Grant Wood.

I am now living in another American town with a shady past and a tarnished present. Like Revere, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, Ohio, has re-spun its history. It did not change its name: it changed its past. Portsmouth’s town fathers have tried to make the past of their river city look respectable through one of the oldest forms of propaganda: murals. I will say more about that in “Tale of Two Cities: II.”

Robert Forrey