Friday, March 09, 2007

History lessons

At the end of a fine tribute to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died on February 28, New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus throws down the gauntlet. Having noted Scheschinger's ability, in the pitch of the "anxious" twentieth century, to connect American history to the pulse of the present moment, he looks to our own moment and sees a vacuum: "If our own anxious age is to attain similar heights our historians must help lead the way."

Naturally and for good reason, the blogosphere reacts. Comes Mary Dudziak at Legal History Blog: "This makes me wonder what Tanenhaus has been reading," she writes, as she proceeds to list a handful of recent histories that explicitly touch on current issues. She could have included her own book Cold War Civil Rights. Though its subject isn't the immediate present, its understanding of the international dynamics of the civil rights era certainly resonates in our global era.

From where I sit, historians are speaking effectively to the present. I'm thinking of the work going on to reconsider Southern history as a whole. The names David Blight, Gaines Foster, Kirk Savage, and Fitz Brundage may not be household. Around North Carolina, though, at least Tim Tyson is. Their messages are consistent: the Lost Cause was highly motivated mythology. The ways in which we remember the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow are worth revisiting and revising. There's at least a dotted line between the essays in Brundage's essay collection Where These Memories Grow and the 2004 conference on UNC's campus to look more closely at the university's Reconstruction history. Blood Done Sign My Name, required reading at UNC and elsewhere, tapped into veins of other memories, giving people permission to talk about race in more honest ways. This reconsideration has risen to such a pitch that even the National Park Service offers a contextual take on the creation of the Lincoln Memorial. Kevin Levin quotes from the NPS's discussion of the memorial's symbolism:

The period between 1865-1909 was a period marked as a time of incredible technological advances, rapid industrial growth, and imperialistic expansionism; of enflamed patriotism during and after the Spanish-American War; and a continuance of Jim Crow laws, the exploitation of the working class, and Tammany Hall-style politics. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that the predominately white, classically minded and university educated, upper-middle class generation of architects and engineers that built the Lincoln Memorial would stress the theme of National Unity over that of Social Justice.

Mr. Tanenhaus has a lot of good reading waiting for him. These are not grand narratives in the Schlesinger style. But they add up to something important and maybe a little threatening. Is it a technical glitch that the passage Levin cites from the NPS pages is not to be found now, or did the National Review have something to do with it?

Over at Cliopatria, more responses to Tanenhaus.

UPDATE: Tanenhaus responds: "where are the master narratives of our moment?" The assumption in that question, I think, gets to the heart of the debate he's set off.

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