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Cards of Identity

Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History

by David Lowenthal
Free Press, 338 pp., $25.00

The trouble with the attempts to preserve various forms of “heritage,” David Lowenthal argues, is that they have become so unselective: nothing seems immune from preservation or museumification—buttons, barbed wire, the historic linoleum on the floor. His new book, Possessed by the Past, appears a little like that at times: it can seem as though there was no jotting in his card index that he could bear to throw away. But he is an alert and indefatigable snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. Cheerfully jaundiced, exuberantly glum, he shuffles a kaleidoscope of quotation and comment on every aspect of the heritage phenomenon: books, magazines, newspapers, jokes, anecdotes, and personal experience. An American who lives in England, he draws the greater part of his examples from the two countries he knows best, but his gaze is over all the world, and a single paragraph may leap from the Navaho to the Basque country to the Yakut of the Siberian taiga. He can be very funny, as in his account of the scruffy surroundings of Stonehenge and the battles between druids, hippies, police, and conservationists for control of the site; he is energetic, stimulating, self-contradictory, entertaining, sometimes provoking, and sometimes completely irrelevant. The effect brings to mind a small boy’s stamp album: lots of little brightly colored bits and pieces, lots of enthusiasm, but a few of the stamps are stuck in askew, or on the wrong page.

And so it all comes tumbling out. Nearly a hundred pages have passed before he draws breath long enough to ask himself what the word “heritage” means, only to declare that it “all but defies definition.” The truth is that, like many other people, he uses it in a variety of senses and it may be worth trying to sort a few of these out. Sometimes he speaks of heritage as a thing which all peoples of a certain place have in more or less equal measure, but when he remarks that “Italy is so stuffed with heritage that only a fraction of it is catalogued,” he must be referring to objects and buildings of high aesthetic or historical value—a wealth which sets Italy apart from less happy lands. Sometimes heritage seems to be a near synonym for conservation; this is presumably his meaning when he admits to being “a heritage activist myself,” otherwise a surprising confession from one who is so caustic about notions of heritage. Another sense of heritage is simply “what we’ve got”: when the British public is urged to guard its heritage by “saving” a Poussin or a Canova from deportation to Los Angeles, there is usually no pretense that these artifacts have been part of the national story, but it may still seem a pity to lose them. Then there is what might be called Grand Canyon heritage: a consciousness of owning magnificent landscape which may not be part of daily experience but which even if it is distant in space and remote in character from the places where most people live somehow adds mysteriously to national self-esteem. Lowenthal touches upon all these topics, but his principal themes are two: the treatment of the past and the making of national identity.

Under the rubric of heritage,” he writes, “ever more is revered in theory and ruined in practice. Stewardship saves the past from decay—and robs it of majesty and mystery.” And certainly he has plenty of examples both of populist tackiness and of the dead hand of well-meaning but lifeless conservation. But perhaps he despairs too quickly. He argues that “heritage lumps together all the past, commingling epochs without regard to continuity or context.” This is too harsh: it seems clear enough that people in England get different sorts of gratification out of the Victorian era, the Regency, and the Elizabethan Age, and that even cheap fiction and lowbrow films are sensitive to the distinct flavors of these various periods. Lowenthal is inclined to underestimate people’s sense of the pastness of the past, their awareness of “the world we have lost” (words which form the title of a book by Peter Laslett, to which he passingly refers). People find in the past both strangeness and continuity; maybe our own age’s fascination with the Victorian period is in part because it seems to present nearness and distance in equipoise.

Henry James spoke of “the element of accumulation in the human picture and the infinite superpositions of history,” exemplified supremely in Rome. It is the sense of accretion that Lowenthal misses when he complains that the “intricate texture of downtown Boston” visible sixty years ago has been replaced by “packing-crate office blocks,” so that the eighteenth-century Massachusetts State House is left as “an ornamental snuff box in a museum case.” Yet maybe there is gain as well as loss: some may find a piquancy in the juxtaposition of the little State House and the modern cliffs of glass and metal a short distance from it, in part because it is a building of modest but genuine distinction. And though the heritage sentiment is often entangled with nostalgia and technophobia, as Lowenthal well demonstrates, we might also reflect that dynamic change can itself be a tradition.

In a way, it is disappointing that there should be hardly anything earlier than 1850 in a metropolis as comparatively old as New York, but the city’s capacity to keep remaking itself is a part of its power and even of its inheritance. St. Paul’s, in downtown Manhattan, has a claim to be the finest colonial church in North America; there is something splendid in the way that it is taken for granted, absorbed into the street scene, without a lot of fuss being made of it; survivals from the past are not fated to be museumified, even where they are rare. Most of the City of London (the financial district) is a mishmash, but there is some compensation in its unique combination of antiquity and dramatic change, the modernist and postmodern office blocks jostling with Victorian temples of commerce, Renaissance and medieval churches, and even fragments of Roman wall beside a company’s parking lot.

Lowenthal is concerned that as more and more things come to be treated as heritage, the “aura of rarity” is lost. Some parts of a national heritage are singular by nature (there is only one Mount Rushmore), but other things are heritage by very virtue of not being rare. To push open the door of an English parish church, to take in the medieval arcade, the Victorian reredos, the marble urn on the Georgian monument, the aluminum urn for coffee after service, the book by C.S. Lewis yellowing on the nearby bookstall—and to know that we could be doing this in thousands of other villages—is to experience a heritage that is still living and accumulating, like the coral reef or the stalagmites in the limestone cavern. Or if you are looking for heritage in the US, instead of the brightly frozen artifice of Colonial Williamsburg (on which Lowenthal casts a withering eye) you might try (say) Pierce City in southern Missouri, where deep in l’Amérique profonde you may almost have the illusion that nothing much has happened in a hundred years, a sense of changeless country life not easily matched in Europe.

Halfway through Possessed by the Past an argument begins to emerge which goes something like this: What we call heritage must be distinguished from history. Heritage “is not a testable or even a reasonably plausible account of some past, but a declaration of faith in that past”; it “exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error.” Indeed, “bias is the main point of heritage.” By contrast, history aims at objectivity. However, this goal is a mirage, since history must always be an interpretation of the past, not a replica of it, and can never be value-free. Lowenthal also seems to believe that at least as taught in schools history is bound to be distorted in order to gratify the national vanity. Accordingly, “Heritage diverges from history not in being biased but in its attitude toward bias…. History differs from heritage not, as people generally suppose, in telling the truth, but in trying to do so…” (all italics his).

This does not seem to be the best way of looking at the matter. Surely there can be both good and bad heritage, both good and bad history. This is likely to hold true for any definition of heritage, unless the argument is made circular by defining heritage as any relationship to the past that fails to satisfy historical criteria. At times Lowenthal seems to be very close to this position. Since he is fond of bringing personal experience to bear on his arguments, often with telling effect, it seems natural to respond in the same vein. As a child in Australia I was given a history of the nation called The Australia Story; I still have it, and it still seems to me admirable—a tale well told without bragging or sentimentality. A modern version would probably say more about the mistreatment of Aborigines, but even this is not wholly left out. Later I spent many years studying English history in England, sometimes from pretty elderly textbooks, but I cannot recall a triumphalist tone in any of them; rather, I got the sense of a story with the variety that you would expect in any good story, virtue and evil, failure and success. This is what W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman parodied in 1066 and All That—a Bad Man here, a Good Thing there, and the continuing competition to be Top Nation, finally won by America, so that history came to a full stop (a judgment that anticipated Francis Fukuyama by some fifty years).

When I went to work at a school in Pakistan, I was genuinely taken aback to find that the book from which I was instructed to teach the history of the subcontinent presented everyone as uniformly admirable, Alexander the Great and the Buddhist emperor Asoka as much as the Islamic heroes. It seemed so boring. The only people who came in for any criticism at all were the British, and even they got fairly amiable treatment: their main fault was to be merchants and traders who extended their power sneakily, instead of killing lots of people in battle, in the proper manner. Now that England is a nation of Pakistani shopkeepers, this has an ironic ring.

In America similarly, textbooks widely used in schools and colleges, like A People and a Nation,* show that it is possible to write a national history without nationalism; one is more likely in such cases to complain of blandness than bias. An Englishman is said not to boast provided that he can make it sufficiently clear what he is not boasting about, and it might be argued that British and American schoolbooks can afford to tell the story straight because it is predominantly a successful one; luckily, though, there are few nations, if any, which do not have something to be proud about. It might also be objected that this is too complacent a picture, and that there are new pressures to put the glory back into the history which is taught in schools: Lowenthal cites examples from both sides of the Atlantic of agitated voices demanding a less skeptical, more upbeat narration of the national past. But what the more thoughtful of these protesters seem to be complaining about, though they may not have managed to articulate it well, is the positive relish for belittlement and a settled determination to debunk on all occasions; and the objection to this is that it is poor as history. To tell the story of the United States without showing that it has some extraordinary achievements is simply to fall down on the job. Just as you must first grasp the monstrousness of the Holocaust in order to ask the necessary question—how could this have been done by people from what was considered a highly civilized country?—so you must acknowledge the continuing strength of the Bill of Rights before you can set about explaining what made it possible.

  1. *

    A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, by Mary Beth Norton, David M. Katzman, Paul D. Escott, Howard P. Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, and William M. Tuttle, Jr., was first published in 1982 by Houghton Mifflin. The authors wrote in their preface: “When we are buffeted by the erratic winds of current affairs, we look back for reassuring precedents. But we do not always find that history is comforting. The past holds much that is disturbing, for the story of a people or a nation—like any story—is never one of unbroken progress.” The book also broke new ground for a general historical textbook in giving social history a central place.

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