Historian Francis Jennings tells Harriet Swain why he delights in debunking the official history of America and why he feels that political correctness on US campuses is in fact racist
Francis "Fritz" Jennings is not a man to mince words. His books accuse his fellow historians of lying and fabrications. His lectures rail against examples of "mainstream history" for failing to check primary sources.
In his ground-breaking book The Invasion of America he accused early American colonials of "pervasive calculated deception of the official records" and their historian descendants of being "wilfully and consistently misleading". His most recent work, a biography of Benjamin Franklin, was brutally frank about its subject ("the towering ego of the man swept aside the rationalism of the genius"), about Pennsylvania's 18th-century proprietary Thomas Penn ("a most unlovely man"), even about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ("men known as compulsive liars during their public lives").
So it is a surprise to find, waiting patiently on his doorstep, a twinkly roundish man of nearly 80 wearing a brightly-coloured woven tie and a white beard not unlike Father Christmas's, only better kept.
He is on a rare visit to London from his Illinois home to deliver a lecture, in typically firey style - "much, repeat much, American history is plainly counterfeit" - and to visit a fellow historian and old friend "because it could be my last chance".
It was The Invasion of America, published in 1975, which made Francis Jennings's name. In it he takes apart the "myths created by the cant of conquest", which treat American history as the advance of civilisation against savagery. Instead, he says, America's past was an "acculturation of Europeans and Indians", involving an exchange of culture and ideas and little different from early medieval invasions of Europe. Europeans, he says, did not discover America. They invaded it. And their success was achieved not through any superiority of civilisation but because native Americans did not have immune systems which could cope with the germs the invaders brought with them. For Jennings, the history of America is marked, not by the triumph of an elite but by death, disease and invasion. An early believer in the usefulness to history of other disciplines, such as anthropology, he was also one of the first historians to point out that native Americans were, in fact, human beings.
Since he wrote the book, all this has become a lot more fashionable - sometimes so fashionable that American Indians have been idealised. Jennings has little time for idealisation. When he started his work he had never met an American Indian. He now has many as friends. But his interest in their past is as a historian rather than as a champion of any cause. "Just to tell the truth about them is championing them in a way, but I don't feel it is a missionary task," he says. "American Indians are like other people. They have their quota of heroes, ordinary people and villainous characters and I'm not going to champion the villainous ones.
"Some Indians aren't very keen on me. They think I should be more interested in Indians rather than history. But the real reason I got into the history of Indians was because I wanted to know more about my own people. I have found the treatment meted out to Indians at various times in our history very revealing."
In any case, Jennings has never been one to follow fashion. He was awkward from childhood. "I was the first person in my whole clan to get through high school," he says. "I was teacher's pet. I was a strange kid in our town and rather lonely because the others looked upon me as a weirdo. I read books! I had to learn how to fight with my mouth."
He recalls one incident when he was "hanging out" with a group and a larger boy pushed him and told him: "get out of my way, you idiotic misprint". Jennings fought back with the words: "You're just a typographical error yourself", and apparently left him gasping. "He couldn't admit he didn't know what it meant," Jennings says, still chuckling at the memory.
His undergraduate years were spent in Philadelphia, followed by a three-year stint of military service during the second world war and several years teaching in Philadelphia high schools - an experience more nerve-racking than anything he experienced in war-time but also more rewarding. It included dealing with black teenagers from poor and disturbed backgrounds who had been rejected from other schools. He is full of moving stories of individuals he watched grow during this time - who learned to read, gained in confidence, started standing up for themselves. He went to graduate school at the University of Philadelphia, where he started studying Indians, mainly, it seems, because he spotted the opportunity for a good row.
This time his target was no teenage bully but one of America's most respected historians, Francis Parkman. He came upon Parkman when he was scouting around for a dissertation topic and thought, "Bingo!" "I picked up Parkman as a bargain and read him all the way through," he says. "After I discovered how much misinformation there was in his books I had to make a choice. I could write a biography of Parkman - or I could do a new version of the history he had mangled so badly. I'm a vain sort of person and I was damned if I was to be a tail for his kite so that was what I did. It took me 30 years but I'm rather proud of it."
Parkman is still his favourite hate object, although he has added several more since. "I looked into anthropology and I found that Parkman's Indians just weren't credible, which meant all of the scenes in which Indians appeared in his books weren't credible," he says. "I also found the Quakers were different from how they were regarded by him." His recent London lecture described Parkman's books as "works of imagination, fictions, in which he regularly misreported sources, sometimes actually lying and sometimes fabricating sources impossible to find."
Studying them started Jennings on a mission to cover the same ground with "honest history". For this he relies first of all on instinct or "sense of smell". "I look at something that smells wrong and then will follow around it and read around it," he says.
In his next book he plans to move away from Indians and tackle the American revolution. But he will treat Indians and black slaves as participants in that revolution. Usually, he says, they have been left out. This time his nose has led him to the "myth" that the colonials were hard working, struggling, liberal-minded people being victimised by the vicious English. "This is nonsense," he says. "The colonials were as imperialist as the Crown. The notion that the revolution was about democracy is insane. The revolutionaries didn't believe in democracy."
So off he goes again, fighting the beliefs - and the historians - that have boosted American self-confidence for so long. Why is he so keen to knock down this self-confidence? Why does he get so angry, so personal about it? "It's a hang-over from when I was a boy and had to fight off the bullies," he says. "I just can't stand it. I get very angry indeed when I see men I think of as charlatans passing themselves off as authorities. They have squads and regiments of assistants. I'm a single man and an old one and I find out more things than they ever touch."
He does not want to suggest he is above reproach. He readily admits he has his own bugbears and blindspots. All he wants is for someone to point them out and show themselves ready to tackle him head on. "I am an honest historian as much as I can be," he says. "Everyone has prejudices. I'm 79-years-old and it would be unusual if I had reached that age without some preferences. I have had a problem shedding some. I'm not going to shed others." He says he used to be automatically hostile to rich people but has now come across enough of them to realise that even they come "assorted".
Now his chief object of hate is racism. America, he says, is still a deeply racist country. He remembers when he used to have to seek out particular restaurants when travelling with black colleagues to ensure they were served. While this is no longer true, he still regularly comes across racist attitudes, sometimes in academia itself. For example, the political correctness sweeping many American campuses has a basis in racism, he says. On the one hand it leads to people being hypersensitive about issues like race, on the other, he believes it is perpetuated by rightwingers who like to dismiss as politically correct people who disagree with their views. It is yet another aspect of the "word-magic" which created the myth of "civilisation" versus "savagery" in the history of America's conquest. Francis Jennings does not like fudge. "The way to arrive at the truth is to say boldly and clearly what you think and then have someone on the other side say what they think," he says. "Out of the clash of the two statements you finally agree on something. "General approval now seems to go to blandness. History is still treated as a gentleman's art. I'm no gentleman. I'm an educated peasant."
Maybe, but in spite of his complaint that the English language contains far too few profanities to express exactly what he feels about racists, Jennings is a gentle man. He lives for his work and for the memory of his wife, Joan, who died eight years ago. A strong, forthright woman, she clearly provided Jennings with his ideal sparring partner. In this, no one else has ever quite matched up to her.
Francis Jennings is director emeritus, Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indians, Chicago. Benjamin Franklin, Politician, is published by W. W. Norton, Pounds 19.95