It’s a-Flat Like Your Head

When I first taught my course The Production of History at Swarthmore, I wanted to show the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Hare We Go”, in which Bugs Bunny helps and then antagonizes Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. I was thinking about the cartoon today because it’s not going to be in the last of Warner Brothers’ Golden Collections of Looney Tunes material, which frustrates the hell out of me. I think I’ve mentioned the cartoon in every iteration of the course and never been able to show it. It’s a great example of how popular consciousness of historical events is often formed from a kind of ubiquitous cultural substrate.

The cartoon reproduces the old story of Columbus trying unsuccessfully to convince potential backers of his voyage that the world is round and Isabella hocking her jewels to finance his trip. (In this version, Bugs helps him prove the world is round by throwing a baseball around the world: it returns covered in port-of-call stickers.) Historians know very well that most educated people as well as most sailors in early modern Europe were perfectly well aware that the world was round. In fact, Columbus really was kind of deluded, just not about the shape of the world, but its size. He thought it was much smaller than it actually was, and many sailors and savants were correct in their rough estimate of the size of the world. Hence, they were right that you’d die sailing westward to Asia, since they didn’t think there was anything in between.

But when you ask why people have heard otherwise, you can’t really zero in on any single text or source that is responsible for creating an alternative folk knowledge about Columbus and medieval European knowledge. Even when you can find a source like “Hare We Go”, it’s often whimsical, humorous, intended for children, fabulistic, and infused with a sense of reference to common sense knowledge about past events. It’s not that the cartoon teaches you about Columbus. It’s more like it’s one cypher key to a vast but diffuse cultural code that surrounds us all. No one reproduces it deliberately, and no harm or malice is intended in its reproduction. This is fairly close in some sense to what it meant by a meme, only without the weighty invocations of genetic-style mechanisms that the dedicated proponents of memetics always try to throw into the mix.

It seems to me that there are a great many things that people hold in everyday knowledge which are very similar, and sometimes they hold several stories or facts which contradict one another. I think it’s very rare to come across a work of knowledge that can single-handedly take such a story or understanding out of circulation, or make everyone mindful of the misconception the next time they encounter it. I’ve just started reading Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent book Traffic, and that strikes me as a an example of this rare kind of work. I know that by the third chapter, I’ve already had to reconsider some of my own deeply held mythologies about driving, human behavior and morality.

I’m curious: what other books can you think of where an author managed to permanently tag a commonly held belief or repeated story as a fable or myth for most who subsequently encountered it?

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11 Responses to It’s a-Flat Like Your Head

  1. Doug says:

    Can’t answer the question, just wanted to chime in by quoting:

    “It’s-a round, like-a my head!”


    “It’s-a flat, like-a you head!”


    That cartoon, right?

  2. Timothy Burke says:


  3. swiers says:

    ‘Syncretism’ is the word that comes to mind, in the example above. But I’ll leave proper *use* of the term to the pros ;).

    Examples from contemporary lit include Pynchon’s @Gravity’s Rainbow@, where synchronicity itself is always at the tipping point: the same rocket explosion occuring at different moments or at a given moment, throughout the book; or the invention of be-bop jazz in New York furthered by a grunt mired in the muck of Germany just as it capitulates (Germany that is, not jazz–again, always either just in the moment, or around it). The fallacy–the illusion–is that the protagonist is instrumental in bringing about significant cultural change, even if by coincidence. Think, ‘Being There’.

    Or my personal fave (years back already) Fowle’s @The Maggot@, where historical fiction, Gothic horror, and sci-fi meld ultimately into an apologetics for dissenters and Quakers–to have seen what the heroine saw, and to try to explain it to a sceptical jury. Still waiting for the movie on this one.

  4. JasonII says:

    Didn’t some of the Columbus myth come from Washington Irving’s biography of him? I remember reading that somewhere (maybe that’s how these myths persist–we remember reading things in places).

    I have a personal example: I was reading Antony Beevor’s account of Stalingrad and he points out that there is no historical evidence (none from the German archives) that the sniper duel between Zaitsev and Koenig (i think that was his name) took place. iirc, he doesn’t come to a conclusion that it didn’t happen, but did cast some serious doubts upon it.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Irving was a major producer of the Columbus mythology.

  6. swiers says:

    Or take any historical reality-themed tour run by Disney, the U.S. Park Service, or Ford???? Greenfield Village (and of course, all of these play into Adorno???? critique of banal entertainment, in general).

    In touring, you????e struck by the pains that the curators, docents, and museum staff take in doing their jobs thoroughly, even to the point of raising unsettling questions about the characters or historical situations that they purport to represent. In general, these aren???? cases of ironic ignorance…

  7. swiers says:

    pardon me for the ????? above–I have no idea where those crept in.

    I’ll be more careful.


  8. Western Dave says:

    I can’t remember where exactly it got debunked, Snopes perhaps, but discovering that Ring Around the Rosie was not about the plague was an eye opener. Also, the Wizard of Oz not being about the election of 1896 is a big one but for the life of me I can’t remember where I first read it. It was not in the original debunking article.

  9. swiers says:

    And as far as national meta-myths and altered alterities, the Woodstock Festival places up there, too, taking place as it did in Bethel, NY.

  10. CJColucci says:

    I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the New World hadn’t been where it is and there was nothing between the Canaries and Asia. Sailors would have starved somewhere near where Wichita would have been, and probably no steamship could have carried enough coal to make it all the way to the Phillipines. How would the impossibility of circumnavigating the globe until the late 20th century or taking a westerly route to Asia have affected world history?

  11. Doug says:

    CJ, terrific premise for an alt-history novel! And bonus: it’s a fairly thriving subgenre these days. Now go write…

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