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.

Lowenthal devotes some space to the issues surrounding child adoption, and though this may at first seem irrelevant to his theme, in fact it is not. Many adopted children develop a passionate desire to know who their biological parents are; for them, to learn their ancestry is to discover their identity. There is an analogy here with the exploration of ethnic, cultural, or national identity, but though Lowenthal sees the analogy, he does not seem to recognize the moral. The adoptee’s quest for his identity is a quest for the truth: he wants to know who he really is, and a false or deceitful answer is a frustration of his hope. Similarly, a false picture of a people’s past, whatever else it may be, cannot be taken for that people’s identity; and it may be doubted whether strictly it should be called a heritage at all. Just as political correctness is a term employed almost entirely by those who believe it to be incorrect, so there ought to be, and is, an ironic way of talking about heritage: the word has become a satirical abbreviation for “fabrication of heritage.” Lowenthal misses the irony and thus finds himself carried to the conclusion that the purveyors of heritage talk are either cynics or dupes. But it is not the province only of demagogues and theme-park operators; there are wiser voices too.

Heritage talk in Western literature begins with the Odyssey. When he is asked who he is, Odysseus not only gives his name but describes the pattern of islands where his home lies, adding that his own isle, Ithaca, “is a rough land, but nurtures fine men. And I, for one, know of no sweeter sight for a man’s eyes than his own country.” He does not claim that his heritage is especially enviable; what concerns him is its individuality—the distinctive geography of the archipelago that differentiates it from other places—and the fact that its poor soil is his own, and loved simply for that reason. The most profound exploration of the heritage idea in all literature remains that of Virgil. In the second book of his Georgics he praises Italy in the most glorious panegyric ever written; yet he approaches it by listing wonders and enchantments of other lands, which Italy lacks: the ebony of India, the scents and spices of Arabia, the wool that grows on trees in China, and the bitter apple of Media, which can cure the victims of poison (here the lemon makes its first appearance in the literature of the West).

At the heart of the Aeneid, when Rome’s destiny of government and empire is unfolded, he declares that the Romans will forever be inferior to the Greeks in some of the choicest of the arts and sciences—oratory, astronomy, and sculpture, for example. In both these places patriotic pride is combined with an awareness of limitations, and a readiness to admire and enjoy the beauties and blessings of other lands. His study of historical process in the Aeneid explores the intermingling of change and continuity, recognizing both the remoteness of the past and its enduring effect on the present. He has a Burkean sense that a nation without the means of alteration is without the means of self-preservation, and his idea of a people transcends biology: significantly it is a Greek, an immigrant, who utters the words “We Italians.” There is a generosity of imagination here from which we can still learn.

Virgil’s organic sense of nationhood is echoed in our own century when George Orwell in his essay “England Your England” describes his country as “an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.” Lowenthal alludes briefly to Orwell’s famous litany about red pillar boxes, bitter beer, and old maids bicycling to early Communion through the mist: John Major took it up a few years ago at a Conservative Party conference, without any apparent awareness that Orwell was being ironic. Lowenthal is rightly scornful of sentimental nostalgia, but Orwell himself might provide a model for the wise patriot’s attitude to his nation. (He actually took his pen name from the landscape, the Orwell being an estuary in Suffolk, where he grew up. It is odd to reflect that since his real name was Eric Blair, the term Blairism might now be the description of a nightmare future.) He is at times fiercely, even excessively, critical of his country—“The English electoral system…is an all-but open fraud,” “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun”—and yet hopelessly in love with it. True love, after all, seeks to see the beloved object as it is: the kind of nationalism which shouts loudly to drown out the truth is really lust of country rather than love of it.

Lowenthal says that he was surprised in England in the early Sixties to find how much less concern people had about their family ancestry than in America; he was told by the natives that this was because they had a secure national identity. He quotes the historian Herbert Butterfield: “Because we in England have maintained the threads between past and present we do not, like some younger states, have to go hunting for our own personalities.” This note was echoed by the Conservative politician John Redwood, a strong Euroskeptic, in 1994: “Almost uniquely among European nations, we are at ease with our past.” Lowenthal is (almost) too polite to say whether he thinks these opinions smug, though he does accuse Redwood of bragging, besides suggesting that a rising interest in family history indicates that Britishness is now a less potent force than it used to be. But on the whole it does still seem true that Britishness in Great Britain, Englishness in England, and Welshness in Wales are taken in a fairly relaxed way. We can contrast Britishness in Northern Ireland, which makes a political statement, and Scottishness in Scotland, which has been acquiring an increasingly aggressive and narrow edge.

Surprisingly, Lowenthal believes that national loyalties are weakening: “It becomes easier to identify with Bavaria or Brandenburg than with Germany, with Picardy or Alsace than France.” This is surely a misjudgment: on the contrary, loyalty to the nation-state seems extraordinarily durable. Indeed, so popular is the nation-state that at least ten new ones have been created in Europe in the last decade (more if the Caucasian states are brought into the reckoning), while one long-divided nation has been reunited. Where separatist movements occur, it is usually among people who see themselves as belonging to a different nation (Catalonia, Scotland). Even more revealing of the strength of the national idea are those cases where a majority or minority community believes that they are living in the wrong nation, when violence is especially likely (Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Alto Adige). The world’s only durable example of a multinational state is Britain, and even there the Union is under strain; after only seventy years or so, the Soviet Union fell apart in a matter of months, and although Switzerland successfully combines people speaking different languages, it is not a confederation of nations.

The present travails of the European Union derive in large part from the inability of modern people to conceive of a collective identity or loyalty except with respect to the nation-state: there seems to be no emotionally credible middle position between the United States of Europe on the one hand and an economic alliance of friendly powers on the other. If the experiment of monetary union goes ahead, it will create a new form of rule, “bureaucracy” in a true sense—that is, a polity in which many of the crucial decisions affecting citizens’ lives are taken by officials who are unelected, unaccountable, and incapable of being dismissed. (Sovereignty is too often conceived as a fixed amount of power, which can be distributed in different ways, but in reality it can simply leach away.) This unwelcome outcome will be owing partly to the shallowness of democratic tradition in much of Europe but mostly to the absence of supranational loyalties, which in turn inhibits the creation of representative institutions at the supranational level.

The robustness of national loyalty may be judged from its undiminished vigor even in strongly Euro-enthusiastic countries, like the Republic of Ireland. But Ireland provides a lesson in how to get heritage wrong. A relaxed, open, and charming society in most respects, and now blessed with an enviably dynamic economy, it ought to be the model of a modern small nation, but it is wounded by a damaging idea of itself. As Lowenthal says, “A culture of victimhood haunts the classroom.” Where there should be self-confidence, the rhetoric of grievance lingers on. There are subtler misunderstandings there as well. Many years ago Ireland was seduced by a “big nation” style of rhetoric ill fitted to its situation, a vision of blood pride and blood sacrifice, colored by a fascistic tinge which has not been expunged, as elsewhere in Europe, as a consequence of defeat in war. How extraordinary, in the last years of the twentieth century, that there should be a European country whose governing party calls itself Warriors of Destiny (Fianna Fail—prudently, the words are never translated into the language which the people actually speak).

Admittedly, there is always likely to be an edginess in a nation whose reason for existing is not to be part of another nation (Pakistan suffers from a similar uneasiness): there seems a deep impulse to think ill of one’s larger neighbor, and the sore spot may get further inflamed if the larger neighbor tries to be understanding; this is easily taken for condescension. The underlying reality is, nonetheless, that Irish culture is essentially a regional form of a diverse and plural British culture whose metropolis is bound to remain in England. Ireland is indeed a different country from England, but so are Scotland and Wales, and most of what is shared between two or three of these countries is shared among all four. Orwell observed, “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.” But he also suggested that this held true of the British Isles as a whole. He was right about that too.

Many Irishmen—perhaps most—will not name the archipelago in which they live. “These islands” is such a common formula that one is tempted to look for them under T in the gazetteer. Yet geographical expressions can be stronger than national will, transcending the bounds of language (“Iles Britanniques,” “Isole Britanniche,” and so on). The pretense that Ireland is bilingual is another elaborate self-deception. It is vociferously asserted that the Irish language is part of Irish identity, but this is to make the simple mistake of confusing one’s identity with one’s past, in this case a past which sadly is almost entirely lost. Lowenthal cites the historian Brendan Bradshaw’s view that the canonical story of Ireland’s quest for freedom is “a beneficent legacy, its wrongness notwithstanding,” and that to do away with the heroes of national liberation would “make the modern Irish aliens in their own land”—which suggests that nationalists can patronize themselves, without help from outside. Happily, this is all much too pessimistic. Nobody, one might have thought, could set foot in Ireland without realizing the inextinguishable distinctiveness of the national character. One objection to the “bad heritage” of chauvinistic self-assertion is that it foments anxiety and insecurity for which there is no need or justification.

There are good, high-minded arguments against the fabrication of the past: we think it contrary to our dignity to shy away from the truth, and it is surely condescending to other peoples to suppose that they cannot manage without the consolations of self-deception. But if high-mindedness fails to persuade, perhaps we can appeal to enlightened self-interest. One simple argument against heritage myths is that in the long term they do not work: you cannot fool people all of the time; you have to shout ever louder to obscure the voice of doubt, and the angriness of much nationalist rhetoric is the angriness of fear.

A nicer argument is that a purist nationalism deprives people of legitimate pleasure. One of Ireland’s greatest contributions to art, after all, has been through the use of the English language, and it is a shame for people to be chivied into an equivocal attitude toward what should be a source of pride. A full appreciation of Irish literature (and architecture, for that matter) does indeed require a recognition of how much the Anglo-Irish have given to the national heritage. Not so long ago, with remarkable liberality, the portraits on the Irish banknotes were mostly of Ireland’s English (Yeats, Swift, etc.); the one aboriginally indigenous figure to appear was Scotus, whose very name testifies to the interchange between the two islands throughout their history. (It seems a pity that the current designs have reverted to a uniformly Celtic or Catholic image.) Ireland’s story, like that of all ancient nations, is complex, and its people should not be discouraged from the enjoyment of that complexity. And of course a more inclusive idea of the nation can play a part in soothing the painful divisions in Ulster. Careless heritage talk costs lives.

Lowenthal may have been enticed into his view that national loyalties are getting weaker by the strengthening of ethnic identities in the United States. But he does not seem to have noticed one of the most extraordinary achievements of the US since the Civil War: that it is probably the only large nation in the world without a significant separatist movement. So deeply ingrained is the national fealty that even mad militiamen in the mountains seem readier to believe that Communists control the state and the President is an alien from another planet than to think of secession. Lowenthal tellingly cites two presidents from earlier in this century. Woodrow Wilson told an audience of foreign-born citizens, “A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American.” And Theodore Roosevelt declared, “We can have no ‘fifty-fifty’ allegiance. Either a man is an American and nothing else, or he is not an American at all.” (One might contrast Franklin Roosevelt’s address to the Daughters of the American Revolution: “My fellow immigrants…”) These pre-World War I fulminations give utterance to a fear which history has since shown to be groundless; most people sensibly ignored the voice of institutional authority and found that ethnic and national loyalties can coexist. It is not in fact a new discovery: two thousand years ago Virgil presented unity in diversity as an enjoyable enrichment of the national idea.

The American experiment is of great interest and importance for the whole world, but in some respects not easy for other countries to imitate. For America is unique in being an aspiration as well as a fact; there is no real parallel elsewhere for the use of “American” as an evaluative as well as a descriptive term. It made sense, of a kind, to enquire into un-American activities, but you could hardly imagine a parliamentary enquiry into un-Ruritanian activities: whatever goes on in Ruritania is ipso facto Ruritanian. Dean Acheson spoke in distinctively American terms when he said that Britain had lost an empire without finding a role; the substance of his criticism may indeed have been justified, but to his way of putting it one might retort that to expect countries to have roles is to make a category mistake, like the child asking his mother what a giraffe is for. It is another and rather mysterious achievement of the US to make Americanness a value and yet one which everybody is somehow able to share.

This would surely not have been possible without a common language (the lack of which is probably the greatest single obstacle to a United States of Europe), and perhaps not possible without the ready acceptance of “hyphenated” Americanisms. A price is paid for this at present in an excessive and constricting self-consciousness about racial identity. Lowenthal documents some of the confusions and contradictions that appear in this matter. He cites, for example, cases from several countries where courts or agencies have insisted that adopted children should be placed with parents of the same race, on the grounds that they would otherwise be deprived of their cultural heritage; this is to conceive of culture as transmitted biologically.

Much of this is unconsciously patronizing, as in a recent British case in which a couple were told that their interest in opera made them unsuitable to foster a black child. Nostalgia, liberal guilt, and ethnic purism can get awkwardly entangled. Lowenthal refers to the pressures on Native Americans to stick to traditional ways of life and traditional designs in their crafts. Here “heritage” becomes the enemy of free expression: it is as though WASPs were told to wear frock coats and lay off the bagels. Nor is the admiration of other people always what it seems. Lowenthal takes the notorious case of the letter of ecological pieties supposedly written by Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce in 1854, but actually composed by a white American in 1971. Here the irony is that people who thought that they were admiring an alien primitivism which stood as a reproach to the modern world were really praising the Red Indians for being so like you and me. Self-satisfaction has the knack of disguising itself as self-abasement.

Naturally, Lowenthal also considers black American heritage. On this question, too, one should argue not against heritage but for a more liberal and inclusive idea of heritage. Most African-Americans, after all, are descended from a long line of American slaveowners; most other Americans are not (Malcolm X, whose attitude to his grandfather was that he had “learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me,” was at least open). Once more exclusivism requires denial, and makes a long, complex, and fascinating history duller and flatter. The truth is simply more interesting. Besides, the curious thing about Afrocentrism is that it defers so to Europe: the European model of high culture is felt to be so important that other peoples must lay claim to a high culture of the same type. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena aimed, explicitly, to “lessen European cultural arrogance,” but even if its claims about the origins of Greek civilization were correct, it would fail in its purpose. After all, no one cares that the British contribution to ancient Greece was exactly nothing; to struggle desperately to give the Negro peoples a share in the European story is to declare, in effect, that this is by far the best club in town.

“Myopic rivalry,” Lowenthal concludes, “is…endemic to the very nature of heritage. To insist we were the first or the best, to celebrate what is ours and exclude others, is what heritage is all about.” At once he contradicts himself: “But we are not condemned to be forever driven by tribal demons…. Now [heritage] begins to belong, as of right, to all the world together.” His own book goes a long way toward showing the first of these claims to be too gloomy, for his work is absorbing for the very reason that heritage, in all its senses, and with all its ramifications, is so intriguing; there is so much to grip, amuse, or delight. Patriotism is a virtuous pleasure; chauvinism is sometimes inches away from self-contempt. If nobler persuasions fail, perhaps people can be guided toward a more relaxed and honest approach to their heritages, balancing commitment and detachment, by the reflection that this way they will have more fun.

This Issue

April 23, 1998