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"Each blind man perceived the elephant as something different: a rope, a wall, tree trunks, a fan, a snake, a spear ..."

Reception History:

Definition and Quotations

a page by Harold Marcuse

University of California, Santa Barbara
Department of History

(Homepage, Research Pages, Courses, Publications)

page begun March 9, 2003, last updated: 3/1/18

Theory Quotations

  • What is reception history? Below I offer my definition and some quotations that indicate what I think it's all about.
  • I've also added some links to sites where scholars in other disciplines showcase their practice of reception history: links to other reception history pages. Of particular note is University of Toronto archeologist Cornelius Holtorf's discussion with bibliography.
  • As I come across them, I list books that are examples of reception history: bibliography section, divided into English, German and French examples.
  • Finally, in the last section of this page are also some of my favorite quotations on theory, which don't necessarily have much to do with reception history, although they tend to reflect the concept in some way: theory quotations.
  • March 1, 2018: Again a rather random scattering of reception history examples I've come across in recent months:
  • Aug. 12, 2015: James Loewen, author of the superb US History textbook analysis Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995), wrote a July 1, 2015 op-ed in the Washington Post: "Why do People Believe Myths About the Confederacy? Because Our Textbooks and Monuments are Wrong"
  • July 4, 2015: I don't update this page regularly anymore, although I do often come across excellent examples of 'reception history' (even if their authors may not know or use the term). One such example was on the radio today: backstoryradio.org's piece on the history of the 4th of July (there is also a transcript on that page):
    • "Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth."
      "In the early days of our nation, July Fourth wasn’t an official holiday at all. In fact, it wasn’t until 1938 that it became a paid day-off. So how did the Fourth become the holiest day on our secular calendar? This episode ... highlight[s] the holiday’s radical roots, look at how the Declaration’s meaning has changed over time, and consider how the descendants of slaves embraced the Declaration’s message of liberty and equality."
    • The excellent subsegment on Fredrick Douglass's July 5, 1852 Rochester speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" is based on a book by historian David Blight. Looking up Blight's publications on amazon, I see he's written quite a few reception history titles:
      2002: Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War
      2002: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
      2006: Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory
      2013: American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

Harold Marcuse--that's me, author of this page, a professor of German history at the University of California, Santa Barbara (my homepage).
If pressed for a short definition of reception history, I'd say (you can quote me on this!):

"Reception history is the history of the meanings that have been imputed to historical events. This approach traces the different ways in which participants, observers, and historians and other retrospective interpreters have attempted to make sense of events, both as they unfolded, and over time since then, to make those events meaningful for the present in which they lived and live."

There are two aspects of reception: the ways a person or event was portrayed (by the "multipliers" and makers of public opinion), and the ways those portrayals were perceived (by the populace at large). The portrayals are easiest to determine--they make up the historical record. However, we usually only have indirect indications of how those portrayals were perceived by individuals, and even more rarely how groups perceived them. Thus the latter, how groups perceive historical events over time, which is reception history in a narrower sense, is much more difficult to determine.

Some quotations I've found that illustrate the concept (back to top)
(The selection and order is according to when I came across them.)

  • George Steiner (*1929, novelist), in 1999:
    "No storyteller is in a position to anatomize his own innermost impulses and, often subconscious, motivations. Nor is he an authorized judge of his readers' and audience's reaction. Hence the adage which bids us trust the tale and not its teller. Hence what is called 'the hermeneutic question': do the respondents to a text, to any work of art, notably after the event, not 'know better' than the author, penetrating his intentions and self-deceptions as he is unable to do?"
    In: The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981 [1979]; afterword copyright 1999), p. 172 (the afterword). LC: PR6069.T417P6 1999. This is a fictional account of the capture of Adolf Hitler, had he survived the war and escaped to South America. In the afterword the author responds to criticism the book received.
  • Henri Matisse (1869-1954, renowned artist), in 1951:
    "If the spectator renounces his own quality in order to identify himself with the spiritual quality of those who lived when the work of art was created, he impoverishes himself and disturbs the fullness of his pleasure--a bit like the man who searches, with retrospective jealousy, the past of the woman he loves."
    (quoted after: Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art (New York, 1973, p. 135)
  • Pierre Nora (*1931, director and author of the French project Realms of Memory), in 1993:
    "What counts [in the overall history of memory] are not objects, mere signs and traces, but the nature of the relationship to the past, and the ways that the present uses and reconstructs the past." (I've translated this from the following German translation of the original French by Marcel Streng: "Was [in der gesamten Gedächtnisgeschichte] zählt, sind nicht Gegenstände, bloße Anzeichen und Spuren, sondern die Art der Beziehung zur Vergangenheit und die Art, wie die Gegenwart die Vergangenheit gebraucht und rekonstruiert.")
    In: "La notion de 'lieu de mémoire' est-elle exportable?," in: Pim den Boer, Willem Frijhoff (eds.), Lieux de mémoire et identités nationales (Amsterdam 1993): 3-10, 10. Quoted after Henri Rousso, "Das Dilemma eines europäischen Gedächtnisses," in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, Online-Ausgabe, 1:3 (2004),
    URL: <http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/16126041-Rousso-3-2004>, note 15.

  • "When you put a frame around things, you intensify them. Experience without that frame is banal." (In other words, context and interpretation are just about everything.)
    Stephan Kijak, codirector of the film Cinemaniacs (2003), about art (from a 5/31/03 interview on NPR Sat. Morning Edition).

  • James I. Porter, professor of classical studies and co-founder of Contexts for Classics, writing Homer: The Very Idea (forthcoming; 8/08: not out, but see ref. below):
    "What I've begun experimenting with recently in the classroom and in my writing is not to prove the monumental value of the two poems ascribed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, but to explore this feature, which they undoubtedly have accrued over time--less their quality as great works of literature than their role as cultural icons, as signifiers of value, and as landmarks in the evolving relationship between literature and culture. My focus, in other words, is on Homer's place--the very idea of Homer--in the culture wars of antiquity and modernity. A perspective such as this is an invitation to study the intellectual and cultural history of value."
    His institute, Contexts for Classics, writes in its founding grant proposal that its purpose is '...to interrogate the very construction of a Classical idea (or ideal). To pursue this critical interrogation of Classics, it is important to theorize our relation to the study of Classical antiquity and to articulate paradigms for reception and transmission that enable us to complicate broad claims to "Classical Tradition."'
    In: "Why Homer? Why Now?" University of Michigan LSA Magazine (Spring 2003), p. 38.
    By the way, historians of the ancient world may be ahead of the rest of us when it comes to reception issues. See my reception links section, below.

  • Elliott Gorn, professor of history at Purdue University, in an article titled "Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and the Past":
    "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. ...
    "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."

    In: The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28, 2000 (archived full text of article).

  • Karrin M. Hanshew, Department of History, University of Chicago, writes in an H-Net review of: Dieter Rucht, ed. Protest in der Bundesrepublik: Strukturen und Entwicklungen (Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2001):
    "Each of the volume's eight essays draws from the project, "Documentation and Analysis of Protest Events in the Federal Republic of Germany" (Prodat) carried out at the Wissenschaftszentrum fuer Sozialforschung in Berlin. Since its inception in 1992, Prodat has collected a database for the examination of change and continuity in German protest between 1950 and 1994. ... As the project's central unit of analysis, a "protest event" is defined in the introduction as a "collective, public action by non-state actors that successfully expresses a critique or protest and that is connected to the formulation of a social or political demand" (p. 19). The project's source base is limited to two nationally distributed newspapers, the Frankfurter Rundschau and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
    ... The authors confront potential (and real) criticisms of Prodat's limited source base head-on and openly concede that the picture provided by their media sample far from represents the entire reality of protest. In addition, they acknowledge the significant influence of media selectivity on their results. The authors counter such objections, however, by emphasizing the importance of reception in determining an individual protest's political-social weight. Without an intermediary force to sympathize with the protesters' message and, ultimately, to create the pressure on established political institutions necessary to enact change, the protest cannot succeed (pp. 33-34). Rucht and Neidhardt state that journalists, more than any other intermediary force, are responsible for making protest "real" by registering it and thereby validating it as an event. Only in this way does protest find a place in the perceptions and opinions of the population in general and of decision-makers in particular (pp. 62-63)." ["Christiane Eilders concludes the volume by returning to the problem of media selectivity in reporting protest events. Her systematic study of the Frankfurter Rundschau, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the tageszeitung demonstrates a high level of agreement by all three newspapers on the "structural characteristics" by which protests are judged newsworthy."]

  • Historian Bill Niven, in a 2007 review of the Berlin German Historical Museum's permanent exhibition:
    "But precisely because grand narratives are symptoms of a bygone era, an exhibition focusing on the past needs to take them into account as historical phenomena. How have the Germans viewed their history through the centuries? How have they sought to make sense of it? How were politics, foreign policy and culture at any given point in German history influenced by grand visions, visions themselves inspired and reinforced by stories about Germany’s past greatness? It is disappointing that the exhibition makes no attempt to show us how Germans in the past understood their past, present and future. Such an attempt would have given the exhibition a coherence, without recourse to any single grand narrative. A chance has been missed."

Links to other pages relevant to Reception History (back to top)

  • For bibliography and references to the discussion in literary scholarship, see German archeologist Cornelius Holtorf's chapter "The Reception History of Monuments" (link). (This is a part of his 1998 dissertation on neolithic monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, written at the University of Wales. See also Holtorf's CV.)
  • Historians of the ancient world have a longstanding interest in reception issues. See the Reception of Antiquity linkography from 2001 [viewed March 2004] at the University of Reading (original URL; note 8/28/06: archived June 2000-Nov. 2001 at the web archive).
  • Bible scholarship
    • BILDI Documentation for Biblical Literature Innsbruck (www.uibk.ac.at/bildi/)
    • Centre for Reception History of the Bible (CRHB) at the University of Oxford. website (with essentially nothing useful on it, 8/08)
  • Kristallnacht. I am planning to create a web site with many primary source texts illustrating the history of the anti-Jewish pogroms that began in Germany in the night of November 9-10, 1938. At this point I just have a few texts:
  • The Pearl, by John Steinbeck. Reception History Overview, 1947-1977
  • Remembering the White Rose: German Assessments, 1943-1993, 1994 publication by Harold Marcuse (me)
  • The Wikipedia Reception History page is an exact copy of my definition, above. It was created in April 2005 by Kurt Forstner from Vienna, Austria, who is interested in the humanities and has been contributing to Wikipedia since the summer of 2002 (Kurt Forstner's Wiki page). In Sept. 2010 Wikipedian Cynwolfe added this content to the Reception Theory article, and the Reception History one was phased out (deleted).

Relevant links I've come across:

  • Sept. 2008 conference on how the Holocaust has been remembered at the sites of former concentration camps: "Die Erinnerung an die Shoah an Orten ehemaliger Konzentrationslager in West- und Osteuropa. Geschichte, Repräsentation und Geschlecht" (Europäische Sommer-Universität Ravensbrück, 2008)
  • Nov. 2008 conference on the reception history of the Nazi concentration camps, held at the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück memorial sites.

Bibliography Section: Books that Exemplify Reception History
(at least their titles imply they do) (back to top)


  • Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown, Sherman's March in Myth and Memory (Rowman & Littlefied, 2008), 208 pages. (more of a focus on Sherman than his march I think)
  • Joshua Hagen, Preservation, Tourism and Nationalism: The Jewel of the German Past (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2006), 340 pp
  • Gijs van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 373 pp.
    Jan. 2005 H-Arthist review by Kai Artinger; amazon.com
  • Holger Hoock, ed. History, Commemoration and National Preoccupation: Trafalgar 1805-2005 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 130 pp ($35 at amazon)
    Jan. 2008 H-Albion review by Antoine Capet
  • Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998).
    • "Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors" by Jerry Lembcke, in The Veteran 33:1(Spring 2003). This is a publication of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
    • "Antiwar Protestor Spits on Iraq War Veteran" July 2008 youtube clip showing Fox News report of an incident in Santa Barbara, California. This shows how myth can become reality
    • Spitting myth mentioned by Joe Campbell in Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism ($18 on amazon; discussed on NPR in 2010)
  • Bill Niven, The Buchenwald Child: Truth, Fiction, and Propaganda (Rochester: Camden House, 2007), 244 pp.
    Sept. 2007 H-German review by Kimba Allie Tichenor
  • Gerd Ueberschär (ed.), Der 20. Juli 1944: Bewertung und Rezeption des deutschen Widerstandes gegen das NS-Regime (Cologne: Bund, 1994), 348 pages. DD256.3 .A16 1994
  • Emily Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory (Durham, NC, 2003), . amazon; historynet review, review in Jnl Asian-Am Studies,
    • Journal of Asian American Studies 7.1 (2004) 81-84
  • Wette, Wolfram,The Wehrmacht. History, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2006)
    translation of: Wehrmacht. Feindbilder, Vernichtungskrieg, Legenden (2002)
  • Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)


  • Boris Barth, Dolchstosslegenden und politische Desintegration: Das Trauma der deutschen Niederlage im Ersten Weltkrieg, 1914-1933 (Dusseldorf: Droste, 2003), 625 pages (Schriften des Bundesarchivs, vol. 61).
    • This book, which I reviewed in 2006 for H-German, covers how Germany's demise during the Great War (World War I) was explained and portrayed by various groups, mainly from 1916 through 1921-22. Barth don't consider how these portrayals were perceived (that is, their actual reception in the narrower sense) by the populace at large.
  • Tatjana Blaha, Willi Graf und die Weisse Rose: Eine Rezeptionsgeschichte (München: K.G. Saur, 2003), 208 S
  • Jürgen Danyel, Jan-Holger Kirsch, and Martin Sabrow, eds., 50 Klassiker der Zeitgeschichte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 247 pp.
  • Michael Doering, Das sperrige Erbe: Die Revolutionen von 1848/49 im Spiegel deutscher Schulgeschichtsbücher (1890-1945) (= Internationale Hochschulschriften; Bd. 518), Münster: Waxmann 2008, XVI + 561 S.
  • Matti Münch, Verdun: Mythos und Alltag einer Schlacht (Munich: Martin Meidenbauer, 2006), 576 pp.
  • Othmar Plöckinger, Geschichte eines Buches: Adolf Hitlers Mein Kampf 1922-1945 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2006), 632 pp.
  • Paul Schneeberger, Der schwierige Umgang mit dem "Anschluss:" Die Rezeption in Geschichtsdarstellungen, 1946-1995 (Vienna: Studienverlag, 2000), 568 pages.
    • A copy of this 1999 University of Zurich dissertation is held by the Center for Research Libraries, Chicago. It discusses portrayals of the 1938 Annexation of Austria, from 1945 to 1995. (scans of 6 page table of contents)
  • Christoph Schneider, Der Warschauer Kniefall: Ritual, Ereignis und Erzählung (Konstanz: UKW Verlagsgesellschaft, 2006), 331 pp
  • Daniel Siemens, Horst Wessel: Tod und Verklärung eines Nationalsozialisten. (Munich: Siedler, 2009), 351 pages, EUR 20.
    • May 2010 H-SozKult review: " Vor allem durch das Auffinden der bisher verloren geglaubten Prozessakten von 1930 gelingt es Siemens, ein Schlüsselkapitel im Nachwirken Horst Wessels zu rekonstruieren. Die chronologische Gliederung in die drei Überkapitel zu Leben, zur Verklärung als nationalsozialistische Heldengestalt und zur Nachwirkung seit 1945, ist überzeugend..."
  • Barbara Stambolis, Jürgen Reulecke (eds.): Good-Bye Memories? Lieder
    im Generationengedächtnis des 20. Jahrhunderts
    (Essen: Klartext Verlag
    2007), 458 S.; EUR 27,00
    • Aug. 2008 Rezension in H-Soz-u-Kult by Dietmar Klenke. Some of the songs mentioned:
      "Wir lagen vor Madagaskar" (Ute Daniel)
      "Negeraufstand ist in Kuba" (Thorsten Beigel)
      "Wildgänse rauschen durch die Nacht" (Wilhelm Schepping)
      "Wann wir schreiten Seit an Seit" (Hermann Kurzke)
      "Brüder zur Sonne zur Freiheit" (Jürgen Reulecke)
      "Es zittern die morschen Knochen" (Winfried Mogge)
      "Lili Marleen" (Wilhelm Schepping)
      "Rock around the clock" (Jürgen Beine)
      "Sergeant-Pepper"-Album (Marco Neumaier)
      Frank Zappa (Detlef Briesen)
  • Johannes Tuchel, ed. Der vergessene Widerstand (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005), 430 pp.
  • Gerd R. Ueberschär (ed.), Der 20. Juli 1944: Bewertung und Rezeption des deutschen Widerstands gegen das NS-Regime (Cologne: Bund, 1994). UCSB: DD256.3 .A16 1994


Theoretical Treatments

  • Charles Martindale and Richard F. Thomas, Classics and the Uses of Reception (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell., 2006)
  • Lorna. Hardwick and Christopher Stray, A Companion to Classical Receptions (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).
    • includes: "Reception Studies: Future Prospects," by James I. Porter (pdf of chap. 35)
      unfortunately, the bibliography is not included in this pdf on Porter's site.

Other Quotations: Concepts and Theory (various quotations that I like)(back to top)

  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), in one of his four "Untimely Meditations" (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, sometimes translated as Unfashionable Observations), 1874 [translation by Harold Marcuse, used in my book Legacies of Dachau (book page)]:
    On the Uses and Abuses of History for the Present:
    Each of the three ways of dealing with the past is suited to one kind of soil and one climate only: in every other context it turns into a destructive weed. If the creators of great things need the past at all, they will take control of it by means of monumental historiography. Someone who, in contrast, likes to remain in familiar, venerable settings will care for the past as an antiquarian historian. Only someone who feels crushed by a present concern and wants to throw off the burden at any cost has a need for critical, that is judging and condemning historiography.
    Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben:
    Jede der drei Arten von Historie, die es giebt, ist nur gerade auf Einem Boden und unter Einem Klima in ihrem Rechte: auf jedem anderen wächst sie zum verwüstenden Unkraut heran. Wenn der Mensch, der Grosses schaffen will, überhaupt die Vergangenheit braucht, so bemächtigt er sich ihrer vermittelst der monumentalischen Historie; wer dagegen im Gewohnten und Altverehrten beharren mag, pflegt das Vergangene als antiquarischer Historiker; und nur der, dem eine gegenwärtige Noth die Brust beklemmt und der um jeden Preis die Last von sich abwerfen will, hat ein Bedürfniss zur kritischen, das heisst richtenden und verurtheilenden Historie.

  • Rudolf Zeitler (*1912), in: Die Kunst des 19. Jahrhunderts [Propylaen Kunstgeschichte, vol. 11](Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1966)[UCSB Arts library: N5300.P77 v.11] [translation by H. Marcuse]:
    p. 45: "The more historians strive to make their concepts logically unimpeachable, the less use they are in practice. Precisely defined concepts result in unhistorical divisions severing real-life connections or similarly unhistorical relationships connecting thoroughly incompatible events."
    "Je mehr ein Historiker seine Begriffe logisch unantastbar machen will, um so weniger kann er praktisch mit ihnen anfangen. Aus genau definierten Begriffen ergeben sich voellig unhistorische Grenzzeihungen durch lebendige Zusammenhaenge oder ebenso unhistorische Verwandtschaften von durchaus unvereinbaren Erscheinungen."
    p. 20: "Die Konstruktionen von den Entwicklungen der Kunst im grossen und im einzelnen haben sich unterdessen als willkuerliche Erfindungen erwiesen. Es ist nicht ausgeschlossen, dass wir mit besseren Begriffen doch noch plausible Entwicklungslinien zeichnen koennten, aber vernuenftiger ist es heute, Kunstgeschichte zu betreiben, ohne dabei nach Entwicklungen zu suchen. Damit sei nicht behauptet, dass das Vorhergehende das darauf Folgende nicht beeinflusst und mit verursacht. We dieses Verhaeltnis einer partiellen Kausalitaet 'Entwicklung' nennen moechte, soll nicht daran gehindert werden. Aber wenn es schon den relative fest umrissenen Begriff der partiellen Kausalitaet gibt, warum sollte man den ungenauen der Entwicklung verwenden?"

  • Béla Balázs, a Hungarian film critic, writing in 1925 [quoted in one of Robert Musil's works, translation by Harold Marcuse]:
    "Theory is not 'gray.' It is the horizon of the possible, a roadmap that shows new ways of doing old things, and new places to go. Theory is freedom from the apparently unchangeable way things are, which it unmasks as one possibility among hundreds. Theory breaks the ruts of coincidence and gives us the courage to undertake voyages of discovery. It makes every step we take an act of free choice. Theory does not have to be true to inspire great works--most great discoveries were based on false hypotheses!"
  • George Santayana (1863-1952), The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense (New York: 1905), 284 [chapter 12]:
    "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
    [I include this here just to give the reference to the original source.]
    This quotation was popularized by William L. Shirer, who used it in 1959 as the epigraph for his best-selling Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. For information on Santayna, see the Institute for American Thought website (they publish his works).

Reception quotations page created by Harold Marcuse, March 9, 2003. Last updated: see page header.
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