Who Owns Our History?
A new book argues that Americans are deeply interested in the past—but in highly personal ways
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Would a “new history” based on such findings just endow hobbies with undeserved seriousness?
Traditionalists will lament that even among whites alone, only 24 out of 100 consider the past of the United States the most important for them to know. But they may be cheered to learn that when questioned in depth, respondents seemed equally uninterested in large, generalized narratives of the burdens and struggles of the working classes or other victims of “oppression”—though again, African-Americans reacted positively to stories of the civil rights movement of the last few decades.
What all these men and women seem to want of “the past” is, in Thelen’s words, to use the experience of their forebears to “frame their quests” for “the kinds of people they wanted to be and the futures they wanted to carve for themselves.” They wanted to participate in “building narratives” of identity and purpose, and in doing so they were wary of the “mediation,” to use the book’s term, of presumed experts. The terms are a little off-putting to me, but the intent is clear: They trusted whatever and whoever was closest to them. Asked to name characters of the past who influenced them most, a large number chose parents and grandparents. The events of the past most important in their eyes were within the memories of living ancestors: the Depression, World War II, and Vietnam. Those inclined to look back farther were in many cases evangelical Christians, seeing the hand of God in the traditional national success story, or Native Americans and African-Americans who detested it for the way it demeaned and demonized them. I was surprised not to find more people reporting simple pleasure in “the big story,” but the questions as framed may not have encouraged that answer.
The two authors, in separate after-words, try to imagine ways in which this interest can be tapped to heal the acknowledged troubles of the history-teaching profession. They seem to call for some kind of interplay among archivists, the directors of historical clubs and museums, media managers and creators, and the public—or rather many “publics”—to construct together a kind of “fundamentally historical culture” that would, to quote Thelen once more, “recognize similarities and respect differences in grandmothers’ stories, museum exhibitions, and manuscript collections as trusted sources” and make possible the building of bridges between personal “pasts” and those that cover larger groupings and run farther back.
What do we make of all this? Is it residual sixties’ radical “power to the people” babble? Not really. Almost seventy years ago, as Rosenzweig and Thelen duly note, Prof. Carl Becker, who wrote like an angel, published an essay titled “Everyman His Own Historian,” urging his academic colleagues to address themselves less to arguing fine points with one another and more to the general audience in quest of a “usable past.” For him, to judge by his published works, this meant illustrating the links between the seminal events and ideas of historical eras and the public issues of a given contemporary moment. Becker was sometimes grouped with other practitioners of a so-called new history that aimed to uncover the powerful historical forces discoverable in the daily activities of plain folk rather than confine itself to kingly courts and fields—and that, too, dates from very early in this century.
What would another “new history” based on findings such as these look like? Would it merely endow hobbies with undeserved seriousness? Would it be unable to separate “granny tales,” old-timers’ recollections, and local legends—all notoriously unreliable, even if delightful—from narratives soundly researched and founded on hard evidence? Could places be found for both? Could honesty be maintained in a multifaceted history that recognized not one but many different “pasts” of equal validity?
And of course, would the fading of the traditional civically inspiring and binding national narrative be a thrust toward that “disuniting of America” that conservatives fear? I began to be afraid so some years ago, and even expressed my concern in these very pages (“American History Is Falling Down,” February 1987). Perhaps changing times call for a second look. Yet somehow I have certainly never had a problem in assuming that even though my own ancestors did not reach these shores until around 1900, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln had made and preserved the United States for people like me. I rather thought I was discharging a debt to them in telling the story to people like you.