The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life

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byRoy Rosenzweig, David Thelen

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Some people make photo albums, collect antiques, or visit historic battlefields. Others keep diaries, plan annual family gatherings, or stitch together patchwork quilts in a tradition learned from grandparents. Each of us has ways of communing with the past, and our reasons for doing so are as varied as our memories. In a sweeping survey, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen asked 1,500 Americans about their connection to the past and how it influences their daily lives and hopes for the future. The result is a surprisingly candid series of conversations and reflections on how the past infuses the present with meaning.

Rosenzweig and Thelen found that people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future. By using these narratives to mark change and create continuity, people chart the courses of their lives. A young woman from Ohio speaks of giving birth to her first child, which caused her to reflect upon her parents and the ways that their example would help her to become a good mother. An African American man from Georgia tells how he and his wife were drawn to each other by their shared experiences and lessons learned from growing up in the South in the 1950s. Others reveal how they personalize historical events, as in the case of a Massachusetts woman who traces much of her guarded attitude toward life to witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on television when she was a child.

While the past is omnipresent to Americans, "history" as it is usually defined in textbooks leaves many people cold. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that history as taught in school does not inspire a strong connection to the past. And they reveal how race and ethnicity affects how Americans perceive the past: while most white Americans tend to think of it as something personal, African Americans and American Indians are more likely to think in terms of broadly shared experiences--like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the violation of Indian treaties."

Rosenzweig and Thelen's conclusions about the ways people use their personal, family, and national stories have profound implications for anyone involved in researching or presenting history, as well as for all those who struggle to engage with the past in a meaningful way.

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Some people make photo albums, collect antiques, or visit historic battlefields. Others keep diaries, plan annual family gatherings, or stitch together patchwork quilts in a tradition learned from grandparents. Each of us has ways of communing with the past, and our reasons for doing so are as varied as our memories. In a sweeping sur...

Roy Rosenzweig is professor of history and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the author of several books including The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (with Elizabeth Blackmar). He is also the coauthor of Who Built America?, a two-volume multimedia CD-ROM.David Thelen is ...

other books by Roy Rosenzweig

The Park and the People: A History of Central Park
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park

Paperback|Sep 3 1998

$32.67 online$40.50list price(save 19%)
see all books by Roy Rosenzweig
Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 6 × 8.8 × 0.68 inPublisher:Columbia University Press

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0231111495

ISBN - 13:9780231111492

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Scenes from a SurveyThe Presence of the Past: Patterns of Popular HistorymakingUsing the Past to Live in the Present: Relationships, Identity, ImmoralityUsing the Past to Shape the Future: Building Narratives, Taking Responsibility"Experience is the Best Teacher": Participation, Mediation, Authority, TrustBeyond the Intimate Past: Americans and Their Collective PastsHistory in Black and Red: African Americans and American Indians and Their Collective PastsAfterthoughts: Everyone a Historian, by Roy RosenzweigAfterthoughts: A Participatory Historical Culture, by David ThelenAppendix 1: How We Did the SurveyAppendix 2: TablesNotesIndex

Editorial Reviews

Rosenzweig and Thelen have raised imaginative and important questions. They have written an important book that all historians should read and debate. The quotes from actual survey interviews set to rest the myth that Americans are not interested in history. Instead, the Americans they surveyed challenge educators, museums, authors, and filmmakers to present history in authentic and experiential ways that engage them as active participants.