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No Thanks for the Memories

These ordinary Americans organized their resistance without bothering to reflect on the abstract political theories of John Locke or John Adams that allegedly justified the rebellion. “Not that the insurgents did not have ideas about politics,” says Breen. “They did. But these were ideas driven by immediate passions; they were amplified through fear, fury, and resentment.” Confident of their God-given rights and driven by anger against officials of a British government that had treated them as second-class subjects, the insurgents reacted passionately, spontaneously, and mobilized their communities into action. Not unlike the Tea Partiers of the present, these common people were often way out ahead of their so-called leaders.

The Tea Partiers are certainly not scholars, but their emotional instincts about the Revolution they are trying to remember on behalf of their cause may be more accurate than Lepore is willing to grant. Popular memory is not history, and that important distinction seems to be the source of the problem with Lepore’s book. Although she has spent much of her career mulling over the difference between critical history and popular memory, she doesn’t have any sympathy for the way in which some advocates of the Tea Party movement have remembered the Revolution.

As Lepore knows very well, there has always been a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember. But that tension has become much more conspicuous in recent years. Lepore herself dates the change from 1970, which “marked the end of an era in the writing of American history.” That was the year Richard Hofstadter died, and he was “one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” Lepore suggests that since Hofstadter’s death academic historians have more or less abdicated their responsibility to write serious history that is relevant to the present:

Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business.

That includes the Tea Party movement.

If only it were this simple. If only academic historians would write for the general public and relate their history to the present, Lepore suggests, the kind of “antihistory” the Tea Party has constructed about the Revolution and the Founding would never be created. But the separation between critical history-writing and memory goes back before 1970, back to the beginning of professional history-writing at the end of the nineteenth century. From the outset scientific-minded historians have tried to transform memory, to eliminate its falsehoods and anachronisms, to reconstruct the past and recapture it as accurately as possible. Critical historians want the public to know that George Washington did not cut down his father’s cherry tree, that Benjamin Franklin in his own lifetime was not the Founding Father of free enterprise, that Sojourner Truth did not utter the famous words “A’n’t I a woman?,” that Thomas Jefferson was not really very original in writing the Declaration of Independence.

These were myths that people came to believe, and presumably it is the responsibility of critical historians to destroy these myths and to establish the truth of the past as much as possible and prevent the sort of silly history that the Tea Party people have imagined. And Lepore blames her fellow academics for not doing a better job of it.

But it turns out that it is not easy to dispel the power of popular memory. Although many historians of Washington have made sure that no one puts much stock in the cherry tree myth anymore, Mason Weems’s Life of Washington, which created the myth, still remains in print as the most popular biography of the man ever written. The artisans and entrepreneurs in the early Republic who produced the myth of Franklin as the self-made businessman needed a hero, and their image of Franklin as a founder of capitalism has stuck, much to the chagrin of Lepore and other imaginative writers. The historian Nell Painter found that her revisionist and historically accurate portrait of Sojourner Truth was not welcomed by those who remembered the famous ex-slave and abolitionist differently.

Painter came to realize that audiences and readers did not want to hear about her revisions, however historically accurate they were, especially her evidence that Sojourner Truth never uttered the famous remark “A’n’t I a woman?” At the end of her book, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996), Painter herself concedes that heritage is more important than history. “The symbol of Sojourner Truth,” she says, “is stronger and more essential in our culture than the complicated historic person.” “The symbol we require in our public life still triumphs over scholarship.”

In her very contextual history of the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997), Pauline Maier criticized all the ways subsequent generations embellished, misused, and refashioned the original historical character of the Declaration. She even criticized Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Declaration to condemn slavery as bad history. “Lincoln’s view of the past,” she wrote, “was a product of political controversy, not research, and his version of what the founders meant was full of wishful suppositions.” Lincoln, in his invocation of Jefferson’s Declaration, was of course creating memory, not history. John Ford and his scriptwriters knew what they were doing when they had the newspaper editor in his movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance say, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Certainly Lepore is correct in believing that historians have a professional obligation to dispel myths and legends; it is what they are trained to do. In 1969 the distinguished English historian J.H. Plumb wrote a book entitled The Death of the Past. By “the past” Plumb essentially meant memory, what he called the “created ideology”—the “mythical, religious and political interpretations”—with which humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny. Such memory, such imagined pasts, said Plumb, should never be identified with critical history. “True history,” he wrote, is basically “destructive”: “for by its very nature it dissolves those simple, structural generalizations by which our forefathers interpreted the purpose of life in historical terms.” Its role is to eliminate those simple generalizations and “to cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful past.”

Perhaps not in America, but in other nations some intellectuals have come to believe that historical scholarship over the past generation has more than fulfilled its role of destroying memory, and they have reacted with alarm. In France the power of critical history-writing in eroding memory became serious enough in recent years that historian and editor Pierre Nora was provoked into publishing his seven-volume Lieux de MémoireRealms of Memory—much of which has appeared in English translations.

Modern critical history-writing in the Western world, Nora claimed, has broken the “ancient bond of identity” with “memory.” The “conquering force of history,” said Nora, has called “into question something once taken for granted: the close fit between history and memory.” History has now clearly become the enemy of memory. “Memory,” wrote Nora, “is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it, to repress it.” Because critical historians had been so successful in disenchanting the history of France, in reducing its past to a cold and critical contextualism in which no living memory could survive, Nora believed that something had to be done to reverse the process. His project was designed to revive many of those sites that evoke the collective memory of the French people. So he and his collaborators wrote essays on everything they could think of as vital elements of French memory—Joan of Arc, Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Bastille Day, the “Marseillaise,” the Dictionnaire Larousse, the Tour de France, Verdun, and so on.

Nora believed, as does the English historian David Lowenthal in his Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996), that this kind of collective memory is essential for any society. Memory, or what Lowenthal calls “heritage,” may be, like the Tea Party’s use of the Founding, a worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse; but, wrote Lowenthal, “heritage, no less than history, is essential to knowing and acting.” It fosters community, identity, and continuity, and in the end makes possible history itself. “By means of it we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong.”

The eminent American historian Bernard Bailyn agrees. Critical history-writing is all head and no heart. Scientific history-writing, Bailyn writes, is always skeptical and problematic; it questions itself constantly and keeps its distance from the past it is trying to recover. By contrast, memory’s

relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.

Bailyn made these remarks about history and memory at the conclusion of a 1998 conference on the Atlantic slave trade that had threatened to break apart, as many black scholars and others present emotionally reacted to the presentation of the cold and statistically grounded scholarly papers dealing with the slave trade. With his distinction between history and memory, Bailyn calmed the passions of the conference. He confirmed that the dataset of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard laying out the statistics of the slave trade over three centuries would be “a permanent source for the future enrichment of our critical, contextual understanding” of the Atlantic slave trade. “But the memory of the slave trade,” he said,

is not distant; it cannot be reduced to an alien context; and it is not a critical, rational reconstruction. It is for us, in this society, a living and immediate, if vicarious, experience. It is buried in our consciousness and shapes our view of the world. Its sites, its symbols, its clues lie all about us.

The accounts of the Middle Passage in textbooks read by every child, as well as in Alex Haley’s Roots and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, are all more memory than history; they evoke emotions, not dispassionate analysis. This sort of emotion-laden memory, said Bailyn, “is inescapable for all of us, white or black, and we cannot distance ourselves from it by the rational, critical reconstruction of the past.” Bailyn concluded his remarks not by decrying the power of memory to distort history, as Lepore has done, but by suggesting that “perhaps history and memory…may act usefully upon each other.” While memory may be shaped and informed by critical history, history “may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent by the living memory we have of it.” Memory is as important to our society as the history written by academics.

Lepore could have used some such advice as this. Her academic contempt for the attempts of ordinary citizens to find some immediate and emotional meaning in the Revolution might have been softened by such insights as Bailyn’s. She might have been able to display some of her scientific credentials as a historian and written a less partisan and more dispassionate account of the Tea Party movement to help us understand what it means.

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