U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Past, Present Tense

Here, swinging between the pit of politics and Foucault’s pendulum in the Paris Panthéon, we see “The Mechanics of History” reimagined by the artist Yoann Bourgeois. Take a minute to watch the video and appreciate the artwork’s ironic dynamism: man’s upward trudge to power, the moment his ascent wavers, his plunge downward, and the hard, bouncing rewind. But is this the only story of power that we, as historians, can tell? Bourgeois’ artwork suggests there is deeper, greater work to be done. His art syncs, too, with the words of Arkansas-born poet Miller Williams: “We have memorized America, / how it was born and who we have been and where. / In ceremonies and silence we say the words, / telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.” Whether or not history really has, as Henry Adams famously argued, a certain phase-like “tendency” in terms of power, I’m sure that the USIH book salon’s next choice, Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto, will pave a few more paths forward for intellectual historians to explore. The new year seems like a good time to reconsider history’s mechanics, and to gear up for a new season of historical thinking about all the places in the past that it might take us.

The year 2018 holds a rich series of anniversaries and milestones for scholars to assess and survey. San Antonio and New Orleans were founded in 1718, and 1818 saw a major realignment of American borders. A century on, the devastating global pandemic of influenza again reshaped international relations. Several cultural birthdays of note earn note on the historian’s calendar for 2018, too. These literary classics are all hitting the century mark: Henry Adams’ Education; Willa Cather’s My Antonia; Alice Dunbar Nelson’s Mine Eyes Have Seen; and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein turns 200. This year we’ll also honor the bicentennial birthdays of some leading lights of the nineteenth century (Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, Jacob Burckhardt, Maria Mitchell, Amelia Bloomer) as well as remember the lives of those who died in 1818 (Abigail Adams, Paul Revere). Looking back on the watershed year of 1968, we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, plus: that pivotal year’s intense political activities, the film releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby, a Miss America pageant protest, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae.

Colleagues, which anniversaries, milestones, and people will shape your historical thinking this year? Share your ideas in the comments below, and happy new year!

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  1. Great list of historical events we should commemorate!

    I’ll add two–the crafting and passage of the 1868 South Carolina Constitution and the failed attempt by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 to push the Democratic Party leftward during a midterm election season. With 1868, we have the most “radical” of experiments with participatory democracy in South Carolina; a constitution there for the first time guarantees universal public education, for instance. As for 1938, the failure to purge the Democratic Party of its Southern conservatives would have an impact on American politics for generations to come–and, I’d argue, we’re still dealing with that today.

    • Excellent suggestions, thank you. Overall, I’d love to read/write more about the intellectual history of state constitutions.

  2. Sara,

    You might find this interesting (concerning Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny [Oxford, 2017] by Kate Manne) https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/20/down-girl-kate-manne-review

    I’m wondering what your opinion is on how and why anniversaries coinciding with seemingly arbitrary years (such as round numbers) have become so important for the construction of memories (either public or private). Do you find that the discipline of history has a stake in this cultural practice (either positive or negative)?

    • Thanks for introducing me to this work, I hadn’t seen it yet, and will have to read this essay over more. Perhaps the anniversary/number affinity arises from our periodization practices? (i.e. making decades, carving out thematic eras for memory’s sake, or for exhibit labels). How “we, the people” jointly agree to mark the passage of time has been formative to American notions of identity, as seen in Thomas M. Allen’s excellent work, “A Republic in Time.” Your question is one for us to mull more in public history, thanks!

  3. Hate to mention it, but it’s awfully important for all kinds of reasons, and much on my mind just now as I fight the “fever and ague”: the 1918 flu pandemic.

    More grim moments in Transatlantic history: 2018 is the 225th anniversary of the beheading of the French king and the beginning of the Reign of Terror, events of world-historical significance that certainly had an impact on American thought and culture.

    2018 is also, somewhat less dramatically, the 175th anniversary of the birth of Henry James.

    More promisingly, 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Fingers crossed!

    And, charmingly, 2018 is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of both Louisa Alcott’s Little Women and Horatio Alger’s first street-urchin-makes-good novel, Ragged Dick — a very interesting and really quite apt pairing. If one wanted to look at ideas of gender and citizenship, liberal individualism and the idealization of home, one could do worse than look at those two books together.

    • Great suggestions here, thanks! Second you on the ’70s reconsideration–a very, er, formative decade for me, too. 🙂

  4. Last year, the blog had a celebration of Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins, I think it might be fruitful to explore Staughton Lynd’s 1968 tome, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. The book is of historical importance, and an examination of Lynd’s subsequent firing and blacklisting from the historical profession and the actions of the many participants should always be remembered.

    From 1978, we shouldn’t forget the wonderful world of California politics which gave us the rejected Proposition 6, the taxpayers’ revolt of Proposition 13, and the assassinations of Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

    As for 1868, it is the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment which has to be one of, if not the most litigated areas of constitutional law.

    • Well, 1968 was certainly an important year for me!

      Honestly, though, as a historian I’ll be grateful when our public “commemorative spirit” moves into the 1970s. A less “celebrated” decade might lend itself to some interesting reassessments and retrospectives. The “Spirit of ’68” haunts public memory in a way that “The Spirit of [19]76” does not. Maybe that’s for the best. I don’t know.

      In any case, 2018 — half a century after 1968! — is going to be a Big Year, and–my wish for everyone–a Better Year than all that came before it.

  5. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a number of cases that may of interest: among others, Epperson v. Arkansas (“anti-evolution” statutes), Pickering v. Board of Education (teacher free speech rights), Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (school desegregation and “freedom of choice” plans), and Ginsburg v. New York (First Amendment rights of minors, state interest in protecting children).

    The Sedition Act of 1918 was passed.

    Of course, much notable scholarly material was published in 1968–to stay within legal history, Levy’s Origins of the Fifth Amendment would win the Pulitzer, but, given some of the very interesting controversies in 2017 on this blog, perhaps Milton Friedman’s “The Role of Monetary Policy” (American Economic Review 58.1) or Gary Becker’s “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach” (In The Economic Dimensions of Crime) may be worthy of commentary?

    • Actually, for Becker in 1968, see Journal of Political Economy, 76.2. My apologies.

      • More good entry points for historical thinking here…i.e. Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, too.

  6. I hadn’t thought about sports anniversaries, but the 1968 Summer Olympics had an event with reverberations that are even felt today. I speak of the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The head of the IOC Avery Brundage threw his weight around and a Chicago sportswriter by the name of Brent Musburger who made his bones writing that “Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers”.

  7. I’m in the beginning stage of a new research project: an intellectual history of the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, which was once common in the eastern United States. The last captive member of the species died on February 21, 1918, so the hundredth anniversary of Incas’s death at the Cincinnati Zoo will definitely be on my mind as I continue my research and writing.

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