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The History Reader: Some Thoughts On American Heritage’s Return

January 14, 2008

For last few weeks I’ve been browsing—and occasionally reading closely—pieces from the winter 2008 issue of American Heritage. I hadn’t heard of the magazine until reading it for the first time in September 2006. I was impressed. In fact, an article from my first reading inspired me to add Deadwood to my Netflix queue. Deadwood‘s been great by the way. I like it more than my wife, but c’est la vie.

In the current issue (Vol. 58, No. 3) I’m presently reading a remembrance of Black Monday (Oct. 19, 1987) from the pen of Alan Greenspan. I’m appreciating the insider’s perspective on what was Greenspan’s first crisis as Chair of the Federal Reserve.

I also read, with more attention than I expected, Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s account of Robert E. Lee’s decision to join the confederacy. I knew that Lee was a West Point graduate, but had no idea of his history of service in the Union army. Pryor’s is a humanities study in the best way possible. My interest in this Civil War era topic has probably been fed by my continuous reading, all through 2007, of Kevin Levin’s award-winning Civil War Memory weblog. Kevin can take credit for my close reading of Pryor’s piece.

Although I’ve generally had positive experiences with the work of David McCullough, particularly his magnificent study of Truman, I found his lead-off article, titled “History and Knowing Who We Are,” rather unconvincing.

I must hastily add that McCullough’s piece has moments of real insight. For instance, he reflected: “We American are infatuated with the idea of the self-made man or woman, but there is no such creature. Every person has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, and hindered by others.”

McCullough’s message also resonated with me when he noted: “Learning about history is an antidote to the hubris of the present, the idea that everything in our lives is the ultimate.”

But the article is also filled with platitudes and cliches about the study of history. McCullough opens his piece with the tired recounting of what bits of historical trivia the young either do not know or can’t remember on the spot, such as not being able to identify George Marshall. And although McCullough focused later in the piece on history’s center as storytelling—indeed, quoting Barbara Tuchman on the secret to “teaching history well” as being able to “tell stories”—it surprised me that he would trot out examples of poor memory as proof that the study of history is in decline, or in a sorry state. Can’t one understand important, larger messages about history without remembering perfectly all names, places, and dates?

McCullough’s article also fell flat when he chided the historically ignorant for being rude. Here’s the passage in full: “The laws that govern us, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we often unfortunately take for granted, represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past. Acting indifferent to this fact does not just smack of ignorance, but rudeness” (italics mine).

This accusation feels like the reverse of slandering the dead. Of course you can’t slander the dead. Similarly, to me at least, you can’t also be rude to the dead. You can disrespect the memory of those who have passed, and that for which they struggled and worked, but you can’t be rude to the deceased. Anyway, the last sentence of the quote doesn’t work well.

There is more to McCullough’s piece. The article as a whole probably works for a general audience, but will strike the professional as superficial. Perhaps this must always be the case? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that a piece can work for both kinds of readers. For instance, when one rightly discusses history as being an “antidote to the hubris of the present,” why not also discuss how many manipulate history to be even more prideful? Many U.S. politicians today, for example, use historical arguments about liberty, and our “mission” to bring freedom to the world, to paradoxically justify human rights violations in pursuit of that mission. Isn’t it the historian’s job, when history is used wrongly, to make counterpoints?

Despite my unhappiness with McCullough’s one piece and the fact that I haven’t yet completed reading the full issue, I can say with some confidence that the newest, revived version of American Heritage is a success. It’s thought-provoking for both the professional and the amateur.

What more can you ask, on the whole, for a magazine trying to target the general reader? – TL

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