This article appeared in Content Magazine, a student-run publication at the University of Iowa. Each issue contained articles based on a theme. This issue's theme was Explicit.
For the past few years, Columbus Day has received little attention--little positive attention, that is. When I hear people talk about Christopher Columbus now, they discuss how he enslaved, raped, and killed countless Native Americans on his journeys to the Caribbean. It's strange to think that most of us grew up learning about him as a hero.
In elementary school, the story was that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America thanks to King Ferdinand (and no thanks to that other king who turned him down). The authors of most history textbooks depict historical figures that achieved great things as idols. In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen calls this phenomenon "heroification."
"Through this process," Loewen says, "our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest." These whitewashed portraits make for unrealistic and boring heroes. These were real people with real problems--and I mean real problems. It's time we get a fuller view of these great historical figures.
Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president of the United States, a big supporter of the League of Nations, and a white supremacist extraordinaire. He took the initiative to segregate the few blacks who worked for the federal government, and was known to tell "darky" stories in cabinet meetings. Even while creating the League of Nations, Wilson vetoed a clause on racial equality in the organization's Covenant.
"The Birth of a Nation," a movie that portrays blacks as violent sexual criminals and glorifies the KKK, was one of Wilson's favorites. After a private screening of the movie, Wilson was quoted as saying, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true." The movie fueled William Simmons of Georgia to reestablish the Klan shortly after its release. According to Tim Dirks of www.filmsite.org, "The Birth of a Nation" is still used to recruit Klansmen today.
The story of Helen Keller has inspired millions of people over the years. Most of us remember the play, "The Miracle Worker," about Anne Sullivan trying to teach Helen how to speak sign language by signing the letters into Helen's hand. ("Water, Helen! Waaa-terrr!") In most classrooms, her biography ends there. They might mention that she was an activist for the rights of the physically disabled and the underprivileged, but they probably didn't say much about her advocacy of Communism.
A member of the Socialist party, she hung a red flag over her desk. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Keller wrote an article called "Onward Comrades!" in which she exclaimed, "In the East a new star is risen!" While Keller's political beliefs probably stemmed from her sympathy toward other disabled people, many columnists at the time apologetically linked her unpopular politics to the limitations of her own loss of sensory input.
Revered as one of the greatest playwrights and poets, Shakespeare's name evokes images of a man in tights professing his love to woo a lady (actually a guy in drag) on stage. He wrote tragedies and comedies as well, but Shakespeare's sonnets show him as a romantic. His real-life activities and poetic innuendo also show the drawbacks of being a romantic--namely: venereal disease.
John J. Ross of the Tufts University School of Medicine recently published an article in Clinical Infectious Diseases called "Shakespeare's Chancre: Did the Bard Have Syphilis?" Ross cites Shakespeare's gratuitous references to venereal infections in his plays and sonnets and the prevalence of syphilis in 16th century England as evidence that Shakespeare probably faced such infections frequently.
Ross points out that Sonnet 154 is especially graphic in its double entendres. Shakespeare describes a nymph who takes Cupid's fiery arrow of love and dips it in a cool well. The last line states "Love's fire heats water, water cools not love." While this could mean that Shakespeare thinks love is unquenchable, it could also be a reference to burning urine associated with gonorrhea (Ross's interpretation--not mine). However, his theory isn't too far-fetched. In the same sonnet, Shakespeare also mentions "Growing a bath and healthful remedy for men diseased," indicating his awareness of a popular bath treatment used to treat syphilis. Ross adds that syphilis, gonorrhea, and herpes simplex were often confused in Elizabethan England because many people were infected by more than one at a time.
Shakespeare wasn't the only historical figure who suffered the ill effects of sexual promiscuity. Deborah Hayden discusses Beethoven and many other famous figures who may have had syphilis in her 2003 book, Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. According to Hayden, the debate whether he lost his hearing to syphilis has been going on since 1879--over 50 years after his death. Beethoven's doctor, a well-known biographer, and a famous "syphilis expert" all defended the slightly delayed diagnosis, but there is no hard evidence to support it.
Like Shakespeare, we have no concrete proof of Beethoven's medical condition. We have only lists of symptoms and cryptic letters from the composer to his friend, in which he cryptically describes visiting brothels, referring to them as Morsche Festungen, or "rotten fortresses." He overcame hearing loss and became one of the world's greatest composers, and even he couldn't resist the lure of the festungen.
When we were kids, there were good guys and bad guys--the end. Now we're old enough to accept that the historical figures we were supposed to admire had troubles of their own. Learning about their problems makes their biographies more interesting and helps us relate to them as people. We can accept that some of them accomplished great things, though maybe we don't agree with everything they did. They can be heroes and still be human.