The Pastness of the Past


Mr. Wood is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (Penguin paperback, 2009), from which the following article is excerpted.

In 1969 the distinguished English historian J. H. Plumb wrote a book titled The Death of the Past, which has recently been reissued in a new edition. By "the past," Plumb essentially meant memory or heritage, 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, was 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 was to eliminate those simple generalizations and "to cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful past." During the past generation historical scholarship apparently has fulfilled its destructive role only too well, and not just in America. As the historian Carl Schorske pointed out, "History, conceived as a continuous nourishing tradition," no longer had the same meaning for society, or at least not for that part of the society that read academic history.

Modern critical history writing in the Western world, says the French historian Pierre Nora, has broken the "ancient bond of identity" with what he calls "memory," which is what Plumb meant by the "past." This "critical history," says Nora, has destroyed what hitherto "we had experienced as self-evident-the equation of memory and history." History has now clearly become the enemy of memory. "History," says Nora, "is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it." But of course it cannot; memory, or what David Lowenthal has called "heritage," is necessary for any society. Heritage may be a worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse; but, writes 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." We thus tamper with our heritage, our memory, at our peril.

This confrontation between history and memory may be less direct and less serious than Plumb, Nora, or Lowenthal suggests. Many of the new cultural historians seem not to want to destroy memory as much as reshape it and make it useful to their particular cause, whatever it may be. Many of them have an instrumentalist view of history and see themselves essentially as cultural critics who wish to manipulate the past for the sake of the present. Rather than trying to understand the past on its own terms, these historians want the past to be immediately relevant and useful; they want to use history to empower people in the present, to help them develop self-identity, or to enable them to break free of that past.

In their well-intentioned but often crude efforts to make the past immediately usable, these scholars undermine the integrity and the pastness of the past. So we have some anthropologists claiming that the Iroquois confederation was an important influence on the framing of the Constitution in 1787. Although there is not a shred of historical evidence for this claim, the fact that it might raise the self-esteem of Native American students is sufficient justification for some scholars that it be taught. Even the distinguished sociologist Nathan Glazer suggests that the myth might be taught to elementary school students , though not to students in junior and senior high schools.

Perhaps we can agree with Glazer that truth is not the only criterion for judging what might be taught in the social sciences, but surely falsehood ought not to be allowed on any grounds. Maybe this sort of useful and presentist approach to the past is inherent in being American. As the perceptive English historian J. R. Pole says, "What one misses [in America] is that sense, inescapable in Europe, of the total, crumbled irrecoverability of the past, of its differentness, of the fact that it is dead."

Even many of those historians who concede the pastness of the past and investigate "the past as a foreign country" do so primarily as anthropologists or social critics, seeing in the strange ideas and behavior of past peoples either alternatives to or object lessons for a present they find oppressive and objectionable. "Their vision of the past turns them toward the future," wrote Nietzsche of such sham historians; they "hope that justice will yet come and happiness is behind the mountain they are climbing .... They do not know how unhistorical their thought and actions are in spite of all their history." So these sorts of unhistorical historians ransack the past for examples of harmonious well-knit communities that we today ought to emulate, or they seek out abuses of patriarchal power in the past that we in the present must avoid. Much of the work of these present-minded historians thus does violence to what ought to be the historian's central concern-the authenticity of the past-and commits what the great French historian Marc Bloch called "the most unpardonable of sins"-anachronism.

From THE PUROSE OF THE PAST by Gordon Wood. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Gordon Wood, 2008.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/16/2009

Now let's see. Critical history is the enemy of memory. Our cherished memories are fabrications to be corrected by the simon-pure efforts of latter day historians.

So if your memory tells you that all the undesirables named by Senator Joe McCarthy turned out to be either full-fledged communists or important helpers of the same, that has to be expunged, because none of the critical historians now proclaim it.

If your memory tells you that John F. Kennedy started the Vietnam War, it has to be wrong, because the critical historians today all say the fault was Lyndon Johnson's or Richard Nixon's. Never mind who sent the first 17,000 troops.

And the Indians at Plimouth were the good guys of their era, who taught the stupid men in funny hats how to plant corn.

And if your memory tells you that Edison's assistant Sam Insull had the genius to build enormous electrical grids and by magic find financing for them, you must understand from the critical historians he was really a big bad wolf who defrauded his stockholders--even though he was completely acquitted of all such charges.

If your memory serves you well you remember Robert Kennedy had election results in California that were very disappointing on the night he was shot, and never would have been nominated, but you'll never read that anywhere today.

If your memory recalls a photo of Alger Hiss standing behind Roosevelt's chair at Yalta, don't worry, you will never see it again. Today's historians don't want you to.

If your memory recalls that Barack Obama in the campaign of '08 was going to cut taxes on 95% of all Americans... modern historians will soon tell you that never happened, and he was elected on promises to raise taxes, not cut them. Sure.

Donald Wolberg - 3/10/2009

Mr. GArcia makes interesting points of past, present and future. Of course men (and women and children) and mammoths and big cats and horses, etc., wandered in may parts of the New World 12,000 years ago, and perhaps as much as 20,000 years ago, and New York was beneath some thousands of feet of ice and sea levels were 300 feet lower. All this may indeed happen again (and again and again) in the thousands if not millions of years to come. Now that is historical perspective writ large indeed.

Raul A Garcia - 3/10/2009

In the spectrum of history-usage, at least all provide a link with collective memory. There is a danger in living in a "totalitarian" present. Even more, looking backwards provides a mental boomerang to at least imagine a future. New evidence here in south Florida tells me mammoths and men (and of course women and children) roamed here 12,000 years ago. This is a more precise consciousness and I can foresee another ice age and new nomadism perhaps. Critical history is, at the very least, vigilance and reasoning, not stasis and conformity.

Clare Lois Spark - 3/9/2009

I finally understand what is meant today by "identity" in academic circles. Gordon Wood mentions myth-making by utopian thinkers, ransacking the historical record for materials that will foster a transformative will to power.
As a young adult I thought that "identity" was having a relatively non-distorted view of the world outside the self--in contrast, say, to a paranoid schizophrenic person.
Of course the radical subjectivists (a.k.a. multiculturalists) today do not believe in the process of discovering a relatively accurate history, any more than they believe in the possible autonomy of the self. I hope that the fact that Gordon Wood's book was published, and directed to a general audience through Penguin, will do its work well.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/9/2009

Included above is a sad plea by a noted and very accomplished historian to stop circulating a certain PC lie about the Iroquois Indians.

It is a recherche lie, of course, because you cannot beat the academy over the head with this sort of thing.

That's what is sad. The list of publicly-believed and constantly-recirculated historical lies is as long as the deed to the farm, but only something arcane like this Iroquois nonsense ever gets cleaned out of the textbooks--maybe.

To invent lies when writing history, such as in that prize-winning book about Revolutionary War era gun ownership, is probably the worst offense, but to continue recirculating them when they are known to be lies, or disproven theories, is almost as bad.

Why should there be any argument? If it is known to be untrue, the lie should be deleted for its own sake, and let the chips fall where they may.