This article offers some thoughts about the reception of different historical events over time, and how scholars and teachers of history attempt to come to terms with that fact.

This story from
The Chronicle of Higher Education (, April 28, 2000

Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and the Past

By Elliott J. Gorn
Elliott J. Gorn is a professor of history at Purdue University.
His book Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America will be published next year by Hill and Wang.

It's not easy being a historian. Tell people you study literature, and they see you as an arbiter of taste. Scientists help solve the problems of humanity. But historians not only spend inordinate amounts of time with the dead, they work in a field where all the stories have been told, all the questions answered. Joan of Arc is martyred, Hitler invades Czechoslovakia: predictable and depressing.

Of course, it's more complicated than that, but not by much when we face our students each fall. A shadow of frustration crosses their faces: We have to study the Reformation? The Puritans? The Great Depression? Again?

Our nonhistorian colleagues don't help. Friends of mine -- especially the lit and cultural-studies types -- hold forth on what is wrong with our discipline, and the problem usually comes down to our being "undertheorized." That seems to be a polite term for dumb. Many people in the humanities believe that historians are nothing but mindless empiricists -- tweedy, seedy, and dull.

But if you think others are hard on historians, you should watch us brutalize ourselves.

Most graduate students get their first real taste of this in historiography courses. Historiography is simply the study of history writing, of schools of interpretation and criticism, of paradigms and paradigm shifts, of generations of progressive historians, consensus historians, and revisionist historians, of new social historians and new cultural historians. To a graduate student being initiated into our craft, it seems like a big cat fight.

Aside from the sharp tone some debates take in the pages of scholarly journals, it is the process of open debate that is noteworthy. Take a subject, say the American Civil War, and grind through a hundred years of scholarly writing on the topic. You are left deeply humbled. After much impressive marshaling of evidence and even occasionally fine prose by generations of talented scholars, your head spins with contradictions -- the Civil War was an "irrepressible conflict" and an avoidable one; an ideological war to end slavery and a war that had nothing to do with slavery; a war waged by a rising bourgeoisie against a proto-aristocracy and a war of capitalists fighting each other.

Some historians argue more persuasively than others, ask broader questions, use better logic, scour the archives more thoroughly; their side wins for a while. Then the paradigm shifts again, old questions get reformulated, whole new ones come forth. Ideally, budding historians form well-considered opinions about who gets the better of each argument. They might even ponder the larger question of what really drives history -- trade flows, capital distribution, class structure, military power, culture, ideology, microbes, environment, chance, God, or, of course, some shifting combination of them all.

For the writer of history, knowledge of historiography presents the largest challenge. Even though we are painfully aware of how fragmented "truth" is, we can only convey so much of that fragmentation and still tell coherent stories. Historiography teaches us that all interpretation is limited by the cultural biases of our times, the skills of the individual historian, the limits of primary sources, the perspectives and blindnesses created by a scholar's social position (yes, race, class, and gender, among other factors). That's why all the hoopla over postmodernism always seemed a bit overblown to many historians. We've been dealing with those issues for a long time; relativism is in our blood.

Still, one cannot suffer Hamlet-like indecision and still write. The stories we tell are constructed, and we know it (though there are a few who still won't admit it). Behind the confident prose and flowing narrative, a good historian is painfully aware of how much has to be left out of the story, how the sources say contradictory things, how compelling other interpretations are, how eagerly our adversaries lie in wait to pounce on our weaknesses, how much must remain untold. We work with those problems as best we can, trying to capture as much nuance and complexity as possible. But, finally, we tell stories in little spaces that necessarily force us to leave out much more than they allow us to include; and we do it because the alternative is to not tell stories at all, at least not historical ones.

It's hard to believe, but good historical practice occasionally gets us in trouble. During the 1990's, historians became embroiled in sticky arguments over subjects like the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the "settling" of the American West. Historians themselves had differed over those issues for years, but no one paid much attention. Then the battleground shifted from obscure scholarly journals to prominent museums, and the debates turned to the distinction between history and memory.

While that is not a hard and fast division, the two are different. Collective memory involves folk or popular notions of the past, which tend to be mythic and usually flattering to those whose past they describe. Memory yields predetermined outcomes -- brave men of vision settle the West, brave men of vision defeat the Japanese. Complicate the picture too much, and the feel-good emotions evaporate. Memory necessarily simplifies the past in order to cast it in strong emotional light. Sometimes it reveals less about "what happened" than about what we want to believe happened. More often, memory gets a sliver of the facts and a few atmospherics, then flattens out all the complexity. Memory can be an excellent historical source, but not in the way its creators intend. The film Titanic, for example, tells us much more about the United States in 1997 than in 1912.

To return to the Civil War, memory relies on sentiment, on metaphors like "the war of brother against brother" -- a sad, sad time it was, since we really were one people after all. The sadness, of course, only makes the reconciliation of North and South sweeter, since the United States emerged from the war a stronger and more unified nation. The metaphors transform a social and political conflict into a family saga.

Historians, by contrast, might disagree with each other, but they tend to see deep social schisms -- over economic systems and ideologies, for example -- as fundamental to the war and its aftermath. Memory invokes conflict only to dispel it; history sees conflict as endemic to the situation. That is why slavery has little place for Civil War re-enactors. How could everyone have been noble when some held others in bondage, and racism was endemic? And after the war, despite the liberation of four million African-Americans, the problem of race would not go away, because, ultimately, national reunification hinged on disenfranchising, terrorizing, and impoverishing those people. It is difficult to incorporate either slaves or a caste-bound rural proletariat into a warm narrative of national reconciliation. Memory can ignore them; the discipline of history cannot.

But if historians embrace relativism, then isn't memory just one more version of the past, as good as any other? Memory sometimes contains elements of a reasonable interpretation. The problem is that memory does not subject itself to scrutiny. It shuns the rough-and-tumble of scholarly infighting, the questioning of hypotheses, skewering of logic, probing of primary sources. Memory sits serenely above the fray, satisfied in its nostalgia. Both history and memory are ideological, but the former, practiced well, is aware and critical of its own ideological assumptions; memory blithely asserts its untroubled truths.

Historical knowledge, then, is messy stuff, which makes teaching difficult. For the past generation, American historians have emphasized conflict, multiplicity, contingency in their writings. Portraying the historical process as fragmented -- going beyond old master narratives to tell stories about groups like immigrants, racial minorities, and workers -- creates difficulties in the classroom. If the past is filled with contention, sometimes submerged, sometimes right out in the open, then we must convey the contestedness to our students. One way to do so is to encourage students to be contentious with each other, not to bury their differences but to argue about them. And that means giving up some of the neatness of lectures for the disorderliness of discussions.

Several years ago, two other scholars and I edited an anthology of documents in American history to facilitate that sort of teaching. Each chapter assembled primary sources around a particular episode in American history. Thus, students can read and interpret the words of corporation owners and union leaders from the Great 1877 Railroad Strike; of Lakota Indians and U.S. Cavalry officers from the Battle of Wounded Knee; of Margaret Sanger and Anthony Comstock during the debates over birth control; of civil-rights workers and those who opposed them during Freedom Summer of 1964. In other words, students can learn about the constructedness of historical writing, about historiography.

I remember working on the revisions for the first chapter, which concerns early encounters of Europeans and Native Americans. I was reading Bartolome de Las Casas's The Devastation of the Indies. Las Casas, the first priest ordained in the New World, became the Spanish empire's voice of conscience. Alongside Columbus's journals, we placed Las Casas's descriptions of Spanish soldiers encountering native peoples: "They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two. ... They took infants from their mother's breasts ... and threw them into the rivers. ... They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, ... then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive."

The Devastation of the Indies is a great text to teach, because it raises questions of historical veracity even as it tells an important story. Like all primary sources, Las Casas's account has problems. Disease, not soldiers, killed the vast majority of native peoples. Las Casas slighted the fact that many Native Americans allied themselves with the Spanish in hopes of defeating their tribal enemies. Indeed, The Devastation of the Indies was so harsh that it was widely reprinted in France and England as propaganda against Spain. Still, a core of facts remains. Where others celebrated the flowering of a Spanish golden age, Las Casas courageously decried the holocaust that enabled it.

Working on this chapter really depressed me. It was not just the horrifying details of wholesale destruction at the very birth of America. What troubled me as well was my insistence that we include Las Casas in our anthology. What morbid isolation from my countrymen did such an unpatriotic act signify? Why should I rain on Columbus Day parades? Why, when my students seemed happy in a culture whose moral and aesthetic sense was shaped by car and beer commercials, did I feel compelled to cull through dismal texts, and, by anthologizing them, insist that those students become steeped in them, too? Why should I be the one to trouble people, disturb them with 500-year-old stories of atrocity?

It's my job, that's why. For better or worse, I think one of the things I am supposed to do is challenge and even upset students. Not because unhappiness is good in and of itself. Far from it. But, increasingly, Americans are a people without history, with only memory, which means a people poorly prepared for what is inevitable about life -- tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity -- and, therefore, a people reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues.

Consumer culture is mostly about denial, about forgetting the past, except insofar as the past is pleasant and, thus, marketable. As historians, we occupy one tiny space where the richness of the past is kept alive, where its complexity is acknowledged and studied, where competing voices can still be heard. One of the most important things historians do is to bear witness to the past, including its horrors, in order to battle the amnesia that would sweep away all that is difficult or repugnant. The distinction between history and memory -- that is, the distinction between knowledge of painful things, painfully arrived at, and notions of the past that flatter us with easy myths or cheap emotions -- is at the heart of our enterprise.

placed on website of H. Marcuse, Oct. 6, 2003
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