In the course of his ramble through the derivations in the American dictionary, Bill Bryson dismantles most of the clichés of the making of America. The Pilgrim Fathers were a bedraggled collection of incompetents who landed far from Plymouth Rock. Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree. The Liberty Bell did not sound on 4 July 1776. If it had, it would have made a meaningless jangle. The Declaration of Independence had been agreed on the 2nd and the last signature was added four years later. The Gettysburg Address was a hopeless failure described by the Chicago Times as ‘the silly, flat, dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent observers as the President of the United States’.
Bryson’s book is a scream. There is an inclination among professional historians to dispatch Jeeves for the sal volatile at the sight of history traced through a series of weird tales and eccentricities. The study of the past turns to an escalating series of comic-book fixes. Outside universities, no one