Everything, Revised

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I remember hearing that back when American Heritage began, there was a certain amount of fretting on the part of the editorial staff. Things were going well at the moment—wonderfully, in fact—but what would happen in five, ten, or fifteen years when all the stories had been told? It hasn’t happened yet, and that’s not only because what might at the outset have sounded like a constricting franchise—American history—is actually a limitless one. There are thousands, millions, of different stories, but it’s broader even than that because as John Lukacs reminds us in this issue, all the stories always change.

The nineteenth century’s great quantifying quest for order was so powerful and effective that even today it is easy to think of the discipline of history as disciplined enough to allow for a final, definitive version of some sequence of events.

But of course that’s no more true for the national past than it is for our own. Change is constant, and we live our lives revising. We do it to the grandest historical themes and in the most minor modifications of our personal pasts. Everything about diet that I dutifully sopped up from my seventh-grade science and health textbook apparently is not only mistaken but actually lethal: those sunny pictures of ideal plates of food with great cubes of butter atop two-pound sirloins and the accompanying exhortations to be sure to include three or more members of the grease family in every meal. And one of the routine patterns of adolescent fecklessness in my suburban youth—drink your weight in beers, then get in a car and drive somewhere—now seems to be on a level of social pathology with cruising around squeezing off random pistol shots into people’s windows.

So it is with history. The version of Reconstruction I learned in high school thirty years ago would have been perfectly satisfactory to D. W. Griffith, and a few seasons later I held the unshakable belief that America was fighting in Vietnam through a simple (albeit inexplicable) joy in doing evil.

Of course, as John Lukacs makes clear, there are always reasons why one era will view a previous one in a particular light; the Reconstruction taught to me was the end product of a process of reconciliation between North and South—the white North and the white South—begun generations earlier.

It took perhaps sixty years from its formulation for that particular Gone With the Wind vision of the post-Civil War years to percolate down to my high school classroom. It is that slowness of the spread of historical perception that most intrigues and alarms Lukacs, and his message is an important one: The tides of revisionism will flow over us all our lives; we cannot avoid them, cannot escape rethinking our past again and again; but if we do so open-eyed, perhaps we may avoid—in our personal and civic lives alike—applying the lessons of 1919 to 1939.