U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Future of the Past

There’s a very interesting conversation going on in the blogosphere about History Matters by Judith Bennet. The first installment is here. Historiann considers how the historical profession has or has not changed since women’s history was institutionalized. In particular, I find her comments about why so many people are going into 20th century history interesting. She argues that it is in part because we want a Whiggish happy ending. I would add, as well, that we want rich sources. She mentions her students getting excited when they can actually read documents written by women (in particular, they are activist documents, but as an intellectual historian, I think it is also important that there are documents). Certainly, the availability of rich documents shoved me further into the twentieth century, rather than the era when most people of African descent in America were uneducated and in bondage. (There are some rich intellectual histories for the period before the civil war, but the sources are limited).

My dissertation is primarily a tragedy…so perhaps I am not so trapped in a Whiggish view of history. I do wonder, though, how both a focus on twentieth century history and a focus on the progress that century seems to presume will affect how we research and teach history. Certainly, a century that begins (roughly) with a president declaring that the Birth of a Nation was history written in lightening and ends with an African American president will be hard to teach as anything other than a progressive line forward. But is that the best way?

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I used the famous Wilson quote as a nice parallel to Obama, but I found a bunch of controversy over whether it is an accurate quote over at snopes: http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=32;t=000392;p=1.

    But that doesn’t change my point that living in 1900 as a black person was a dramatically different experience than living in 2008–at least on the surface and at the level that students see. But what does the fact that we are as or more segregated now than we were during Jim Crow, albeit without the legal protection of de jure segregation, tell us? What do places like Detroit and New Orleans, in all their glory and their problems, tell us? I don’t know that students are well served when dished up a pure progressive history. But neither do I think we can ignore the place students come from–which from here on out will be Obama as the most famous black man in the world.

  2. I am sorry that I no longer remember the documentation, but I looked into the Wilson quote–in real books, even!–when I lectured on the significance of Birth of a Nation. My understanding is that Wilson did screen the film at the White House, but that there is no evidence that he ever said that it was “history written in lightning.” The quote, if I recall, was attributed to him much later by some sort of publicist for the film, and no one in his administration ever corroborated it.

    With regard to twentieth century history, I think one important reason for the attraction has not been mentioned here: that it’s simply closer to the present. Even many historians, I think, are interested in the past primarily for how it can illuminate our current situation. (This is one way, I think, to understand the difference between history and antiquarianism.) As such, the more recent past is often able to do this more effectively than events further back.


  3. I was actually pretty impressed by the snopes cite–someone had traced Wilson’s relationship to the film through several books and archival collections.

    True, true. The closer past is more attractive. But has the intensity of study to the recent past been as typical as it is now? My first year in grad school I was on a search committee for Ottoman History, and one of the older professors refused to consider anyone who studied anything more recent than 1914 because of the condition of the archives. It brought up a big controversy within the department about the validity of studying recent history. Just an anecdote, but the blog post I referenced also brings up an increasing discipline-focus on the more recent past.

  4. That’s a good question. I tend to share your intuition that people might be more interested in the recent past now than in other periods, though I have no idea whether it’s really true.

  5. I’ve always been fascinated by what periods seem to attract the most historical attention. My purely anecdotal sense is that, at least among U.S. historians, from roughly the late 1960s through the early 1980s the study of the recent past was relatively out of favor. The current interest not only in the 20th century but particularly in the second half of the twentieth century is, I think, a return to the more usual pattern. Certainly around the turn of the last century, historians were fascinated by the (then very recent) Civil War. And by the 1950s, a good deal of work was already being done on the period from 1900-1940. In short, I think we notice the interest in the recent past in part because the study of the recent past was relatively (though certainly not entirely) ignored by the generation of U.S. historians that immediately preceded our own.

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