Who Owns History?

By Eric Foner

The study of history is all about keeping things in perspective. In the United States, which has a tendency to turn the past into a religion that includes a founding myth of radical newness, this isn’t always easy. In an age of sound bites and manufactured dissent it can even approach the ridiculous. Introducing this collection of essays, Eric Foner tells of how he was approached by an “eager young reporter” during the history standards debate (a skirmish in the now institutional “culture wars”) to explain when historians stopped relating facts and started “all this revising of interpretations of the past.”

“Around the time of Thucydides,” he replied.

Of course there is nothing about the “new” historicism that is threatening or, for that matter, even very new. We know that certain things happened in the past, but what happened isn’t what we mean by history. “History” is what gets written down, and historians can’t avoid being subjective about their work. Every culture selects what it thinks is important to remember about the past, leaving other parts to be forgotten. Interest groups use history as a tool for propaganda and ideology, while changes in our understanding of the world – from new facts to new intellectual paradigms – force us to reinterpret the interpretations of others.

Foner begins by quoting James Baldwin’s remark that history is always within us, “literally present in all that we do.” This is true, but one thing the “culture wars” brought to our attention is the corollary. We are unconsciously controlled by history, but we also control it. We might even be said to “own” it. But who are “we”?

In his first two essays Foner provides a biographical response by looking at his own career as a historian and that of Richard Hofstadter. In the second group of essays he looks at how our understanding of history changes in a changing world. In the best of these – “American Freedom in a Global Age” – he shows how even the language has shifted under foot. As Lewis Lapham once observed, if you ask Americans what they mean by “freedom” today, nine out of ten will say money. The “free market” – an end-of-history ideology that may have little connection to freedom even in the economic sphere – dominates the way we think about such concepts. What Martin Luther King Jr. meant by letting freedom ring would probably now require some kind of a gloss to be made intelligible to today’s students of history. In the final section, Foner concludes with a series of essays using the Reconstruction era (his own area of specialization) as a case study in the way history edits, reinterprets and sometimes simply neglects the past.

Of the three approaches to history that Nietzsche spoke of, the monumental, antiquarian and critical, Foner is clearly in the critical camp. Politically on the left, he is no ideologue. His writing is commendably (remarkably, for an academic) forthright and lucid, allowing for little of the ambiguity that has lead to so much mental decay. In Who Owns History? we get to watch a first-rate mind operating on history, revealing the vital circulation that exists between past and present.

Review first published online June 5, 2002.

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