I recently read about an assistant professor at St. Mary’s College outside South Bend, Indiana. He used to live in the Pilsen area of Chicago at the time University Village was undergoing development. Feeling a loss of history and community, he asked for old family photos and learned there weren’t many. Being an artist, he set about to recreate the community he wanted to remember.
Ian Weaver created Black Bottom, an imaginary Chicago neighborhood adjacent to Maxwell Street by drawing maps for its streets, documents for its residents and also creating quilts and other faux artifacts.
“I wanted to create this heroic history that might have been,” he said. “I think of it as a nostalgic wish fulfillment — one with a foot in reality.”
Alternate histories and parallel universes present us with familiar worlds where the details are unfamiliar.
It’s not a new idea. In 1931, a popular history book titled If It Had Happened Otherwise asked scores of historians to imagine the fictitious outcomes of actual events. Winston Churchill was a contributor. He pictured what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Science fiction writers do this all the time – envisioning what a different world we might have lived in if world events had played out differently. What if Hitler had been accepted to art school or Oswald missed JFK.
At its most benign, alternative histories are stories about roads not taken: The lovers in “La La Land” head off on a different path, their future happy and romantic. Then again, if you look at the 2016 presidential election, it sure looks like our everyday world consists of two alternate universes. We seem to live in two side-by-side universes that see things in very different ways.
I hear that classic alternative-universe fiction has made a revival since the election — books like The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here are flying off the digital shelves over at Amazon. In Dick’s tale, the Nazis won the Second World War and America is an occupied nation, divided between the Japanese on the West and the Nazis on the East. There’s a current series being adapted with more up-to-date themes. It shows an America where people are willing to sell out their neighbors for a promise of security.
The thing that strikes me about this is that viewing who in the current scheme of thing plays what role really depends on which America you live in. We as a national community are more separated by basic ideas that we were in the past. We lack certain common beliefs. Some of us think it’s okay to kidnap and torture mentally disabled men, while others believe it’s okay to murder babies in the womb. On the other hand, there are those who think it’s okay to force other countries to live by our ideals or to force our neighbors to “do things our way” without even exploring what makes “our way” the right way for our neighbor.
Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 when many social commentators saw the New Deal as a mixed blessing for poor Americans. (What? You didn’t know that. Go read some history. No, seriously. This blog post will be here when you come back to continue this discussion.)
Lewis watched as fascism took over Europe and he worried that the United States might turn to dictatorship. His book features a crass, plain-spoken East Coast businessman who wraps totalitarianism in the flag, demonizes his enemies, and then defeats Roosevelt for the presidency. Congress, bashed by the president and the people alike, doesn’t respond quickly as the President declares war on Mexico. The hero, a complacent Vermont liberal, flees to Canada, but (inexplicably) attends a campaign rally for the erstwhile president-to-be. The violent, race-baiting rhetoric startles him.
Lewis always wrote about the uncomfortable truths of American society. He admired American ideals, but he didn’t like the people of America very much, considering them greedy and ignorant. He was a “blue zone” liberal living in his own bubble, certain that the unwashed masses would destroy the country if allowed to have a voice. You can find the alternative to his vision in The Hunger Games, where the educated elites of the Capital have silenced the unwashed masses to solidify their own power.
When history is a matter of opinion, your version of reality is as good as any other. There’s danger in that sort of belief. But there’s also freedom. Sometimes when we go back to look at history, we find that we’ve been sold a bill of goods by the teachers and the shapers of public opinion. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. The US didn’t need to get into the FDR was not as beloved as his biographers made him out to be. Hillary Clinton wasn’t the peace-nic she wanted us to believe. The economy did not heal under Barack Obama’s massive spending. And we don’t know that Donald Trump is a modern-day Hitler. Some of us may suspect it, but that’s not the same thing as having actual evidence.
I am officially a scoffer of multiverses. While I can easily see how a change in a certain point in history could make massive changes to the world as we know it now, I don’t believe that is reality. History is linear. A road not taken cannot be returned to. The concept that everything that ever happened — every chance taken, and avoided — exists somewhere, alongside every other possibility is science fiction and fiction isn’t real. Scientists don’t actually embrace the multiverse theory although some historians do. That might be reasonable. You can’t read certain documents and not wonder … what would have happened if George Washington’s letter to Alexander Hamilton had been intercepted before the ratification of the US Constitution? How would the world or at least the United States be different?