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Defending the Montage

A look at the history of Levittown by historian Paul Manton.

Remember the trumpet fanfair - accompanied opening montage of the old Masterpiece Theatre episodes? It's Edwardian tableau in the form of a panoramic shot across a table of memorabilia was intended to convey a sense of Englishness, of Kipling's "dominion over pine and palm." The vastness of the subject matter - the British realm - necessitated its expression in the form of the montage.    

Such is the case of the Museum of the Levittown Historical Society where none of us are professional historians and where we operate under enormous time, space, manpower, and financial limitations, and the fact that many Levittown residents don't even know we exist and are disinterested. (Americans simply don't zealously preserve their history the way Europeans do).

Still, I think we do a good job and will do a better job in the future. Bear in mind, too, that many communities such as ours don't even have a museum and when I attended Levittown's elementary and high schools in the 1970's, local history wasn't even taught.

I grew up in the largest housing development in the world that revolutionized mass-production and civil engineering techniques. My house was a few hundred feet from the site of the Vanderbilt Cup Race where Henry Ford showcased the state-of-the-art in horseless carriage technology and near the Long Island Aviation Country Club where Charles Lindburgh and James Dolittle rubbed elbows and nobody in school ever mentioned it or - I suspect - was even aware of it. We have made progress.    

I mention these because we have our critics who should know better. A few years ago, I encountered a Master's thesis on history museums that derided us as mere "buffs" (a term relentlessly reiterated throughout) who were in over our heads. Putting aside the snide and self-congratulatory tone, the paper is an example of how critique can become the very cliche it claims to detect in the object of its criticism.

The author failed, and I'd guess never wanted to, appreciate that sometimes the utter vastness of a subject requires that it be introduced in a montage fashion. Let's not forget that suburban Levittown began in 1947 and I frequently encounter adults who don't even know when World War Two was fought. We are operating in a climate wherein some of the most fundamental aspects of world, national, and local history have been so tainted by political correctness, old-fashioned apocryphal interpretations, and a dumbed-down/hyped-up culture that teaching history is one of the least effective endeavors.    

As for the paper and its author, he is a reminder of what Tocqueville called the man who confuses wit with eruditon. Given the state of political correctness and emphasis on deconstruction (that's intelligentsiaspeak for trashing and dumbing-down) my guess is that the author was a hit with some of his professors.Even professional historians, I daresay, are not immune.

A 2010 Stony Brook exhibit on the history of suburbia made the Federal Housing Authority-required racially discriminatory clauses in Levitt & Sons' contracts its epicenter. It was as though a musem exhibit on the events of December 7, 1941 emphasized the segregation policies of the U.S. Navy and mentioned, as a mere afterthought, the Japanese attack and consequent entry into World War Two. It is in this revisionist climate, wherein names are made through intellectual dishonesty rather than actual accomplishment, that we must defend the montage.    

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levitttownhistoricalsociety.org.

Follow the Historical Levittown group to get update on more stories like this. 

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