If it weren’t for alternative facts, Dana Point might not be Dana Point.
The concept of “alternative facts” has been getting closer scrutiny after presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway used the term in January 2017. Cal State Fullerton’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences this academic year has been exploring controversial theories and separating fact from fiction on a variety of subjects in its “Alternate Facts” lecture series.
Marti Klein, lecturer in liberal studies, gave a lecture in April that challenges the explanation given everywhere from academic biographies to Wikipedia for why Richard Henry Dana Jr. left Harvard to sail to California.
It’s a story of multigenerational family dynamics against a backdrop of Puritan social mores, religious revival and the emergence of the self-made man.
Klein’s research leads her to believe Dana was not suffering from eye problems connected to a bout of measles but instead was misled in his diagnosis by his family, which increased already-existing family pressure on him to achieve and provide.
“This is the story of a young man whose family told him alternative facts so powerful that they drove him to undertake a course of action very different from what he had always planned to do, and, indeed, what he had been brought up to do,” Klein said. “Although it resulted in the creation of an American literary masterpiece that had a profound effect on California history, it also changed his life.”
The extent to which Dana, author of “Two Years Before the Mast,” eventually came to realize this deception, as Klein calls it, remains uncertain, but she sees clues in his writing that he suspected it.
“If he realized that these were alternative facts,” she said, “it must have been a hard secret to keep, although in later years, as his life unfolded, it might have become less important to him, and easier to accept.”
Though she understands why Dana might persist in honoring alternative facts, Klein said it’s not excusable for his biographers to fail to contradict them, given abundant primary sources, such as family correspondence and medical books, that call them into doubt.
Here are the basic facts: In 1834, 19-year-old Dana, a member of one of New England’s first families, became ill after a short vacation. His aunt and sister decided he had measles, though his doctor did not confirm that, calling it merely “rash.” After his recovery, Dana studied long hours to return to Harvard and developed eye pain when reading. His doctor advised resting his eyes, most likely based on a diagnosis of simple eye strain from overuse, but his family dissuaded him from reading altogether, blaming his eye problems on the often-serious aftereffects of measles, necessitating his withdrawal from Harvard.
Bored and frustrated he couldn’t support himself in a household experiencing financial stress, Dana signed on as a common sailor on the brig Pilgrim. The Pilgrim left Boston for California to collect cowhides for transport back to Massachusetts. Whatever eye problems Dana might have had ceased to exist. The light and glare on the ocean didn’t bother him, and he was able to perform all the duties required, including climbing to the top of the highest mast.
A few weeks after setting sail, he happily wrote to his family that he was studying navigation, which required reading a book with intricate tables and tiny type. Several months later, he wrote to his brother that he was completely capable of taking care of himself. After two years at sea, he returned to Harvard, completed law school and wrote about his experiences at sea.
But … Klein started digging. She compared measles and scarlet fever (called scarlatina at the time) – both infectious diseases characterized by a red rash. Based on family correspondence at the Massachusetts Historical Society, her results suggest the measles diagnosis was incorrect and that scarlatina, which does not cause eye problems, was the true culprit.
Other evidence supporting this theory:
- Dana’s doctor was very familiar with measles and how it differed from scarlatina.
- Dana’s aunt reported his eyes did not exhibit the light sensitivity associated with measles.
- After his recovery, he tried to catch up with his studies by reading by candlelight late into the night. His father’s letters mentioned measles but also repeatedly admonished him about his reading habits.
- If Dana suffered from eye problems associated with the measles, the glare of the water and sun, and the solid sense of balance needed to go aloft, would have made it too painful and dangerous to work as a sailor.
- Dana’s writings suggest he realized the source of his eye pain was coal fires, dust and lamp light, not measles.
“If he truly had serious eye problems, he would not have been so eager to leave home,” Klein said.
So why did Dana embrace a more severe diagnosis and abandon his studies due to symptoms he likely didn’t have?
First, Klein said, the Dana family had a history of anxiety about health issues, including stress-related eye problems. Dana also might have used the diagnosis to rationalize his bouts of eye strain due to obsessive studying. It also might have been easier than admitting to himself that his eye problems were caused by anxiety and depression over his family’s financial straits, she said.
His personal biographer, Charles Francis Adams, has said Dana had a “premature and exaggerated sense of honor” and a “somewhat overwhelming sense of responsibility to family.”
“Alternative facts interrupted the path Dana planned to follow, and anxiety about the interruption eventually drove him to sea,” Klein said.
There are hints in his writing that he suspected at some point that his family had presented him with alternative facts, a realization he suppressed through self-deception.
Later in life, Dana wrote to his son about deception, even well-intentioned, saying he had been deceived earlier in life and advising his son to beware of being similarly deceived.
And in the preface to his “Journal of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.,” he wrote: “There are also matters of delicate sentiment & things concerning others as well as ourselves which cannot or ought not to be fully set forth.”
Perhaps as a result of the mistreatment of sailors he witnessed, Dana took on cases defending sailors in court and went on to become a prominent abolitionist. His “Two Years Before the Mast” was considered the gold standard for maritime travel narratives. It was also important for its description of life in Alta California and became a vital resource to new arrivals during the Gold Rush.
Besides the city of Dana Point, which boasts a replica of the Pilgrim and a statue of Dana, and some schools, streets and businesses there, branch libraries in Los Angeles and Long Beach are named after Dana.
Said Klein: “I think Dana would be amazed to know people were still talking about him and a city was named after him – and I think he would been flattered to have a surf shop named after him!”
Where her suspicions came from
Marti Klein’s interest in Dana grew out of a show, “Two Years Before the Mast: Songs of the Sailors,” she wrote, produced and directed in 1996 onboard the Pilgrim in Dana Point in partnership with what’s now the Ocean Institute.
From her research emerged a paper demonstrating that educated young men in New England, such as Dana, were partially influenced to “ship before the mast” as common sailors, a career they would otherwise not have considered, by fictional narratives and nonfiction biographies about men who went to sea.
Based partly on some correspondence she read for that, she began to suspect Dana did not have measles or the associated eye problems.
Klein has presented her paper at several conferences and plans to submit it for publication.
Alternative facts crop up in textbook controversy
A second “Alternate Facts” lecture this year also took aim at conventional wisdom during an episode in California history.
Elaine Lewinnek, professor of American studies, revisited a controversy from the 1960s that had its roots a century earlier. It focused on eighth-grade history textbooks but touched on race, patriotism and family values.
It also showed that Southern California was a little more “Southern” than people thought, Lewinnek said. And it led to such questions among academics as: Who gets to decide what is true history: professors or regular people?
Here’s what happened: In 1963, the Berkeley chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality asked a panel of UC Berkeley historians to analyze the U.S. history textbooks used in the state’s schools to assess their treatment of black Americans. They found that most reflected views rejected or drastically modified by historical scholarship — typically ideas of white superiority, a downplaying of the history of violence between the races and an overall omission of black people.
The state called for textbooks with “a correct portrayal” of African Americans and other ethnic groups. A commission decided that “Land of the Free” was the best textbook under the new criteria.
But the book’s adoption led to an uproar of citizen complaints that it was slanted toward civil rights and civil liberties and “destroys pride in America’s past … develops a guilt complex… [and] overemphasizes Negro Participation in American history.” Some parents refused to allow their children to attend classes using the book.
One letter in particular caught Lewinnek’s attention. Charles Stinson of Stockton wrote to the California Curriculum Commission in 1966, saying: “This book portrays Southern women in a very bad light, as being haughty and inconsiderate to the Negroes, maybe a small percentage was, but the great majority was kind. I know my grandmother’s slaves prevented her and her children from being killed by the Yankees by telling them how kind my grandparents were. I believe, upon investigation, you’ll find Southern women were kind and all the slaves loved them.”
“It’s such a great example of alternate facts,” said Lewinnek. The letter writer believed his grandmother, which is sweet, she said, but not the conclusion that historians have now or had in the ’60s.
“Is this evidence that slaves loved their owners? Why not?” she asked the group. “This is what historians do,” she added. “We look at evidence and decide what it can tell us.” Slaves were asked if they liked their owners, and they said yes, she said. “Is that really evidence?” When there’s a power differential, people tend to lie, and the greater the power differential, such as in a slave-master relationship, the greater the likelihood people will lie. In addition, she said, memories are unreliable, especially if passed through generations.
Stinson’s letter “tells us about 1966 more than the 1860s,” Lewinnek said. The protesting letter writers were largely female, from Orange County and Pasadena, and the protest led many into politics, where they claim authority as mothers and grandmothers, especially over matters concerning children.
“There especially was something in Southern California that actually still had, what the textbook reformers called it, ‘the sensitivities of the Southern market,’” she said. “Southern California is still the South, and still really cared about the depiction of slavery.”
The issue leads to bigger issues, including whose version of history we should trust: historical experts or people who have different versions.
“I don’t agree the slaves were happy,” she said, “but I do agree different people have different versions of history and there might be a way to all talk together.”
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