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National Identities, Popular Histories

Nations are built on both ideals and ugly contradictions – historians have an obligation to both

In the third of a four-part series, three historians respond to Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018). These essays originated as part of a roundtable held at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in April 2019. Monday, we heard from David Hollinger about the role of knowledge and truth in John Dewey’s Progressive vision; yesterday, Malinda Maynor Lowery discussed the importance of Native American histories to understanding an American “national history.” Tomorrow, Jill Lepore responds to these remarks.

I want to begin with a confession, since it’s always better to admit the embarrassing thing that everybody knows: twentieth century United States historians like me are raised with minimal expectations that become glaringly apparent when we read a book that begins in 1492 and ends last year. It’s not just that we are generally only expected to know about 150 years of history, but we are often only expected to know a very few of those decades well. I have, perhaps, done a little better than that, having for a decade or so team-taught a course called “Colonialism and its Consequences in the Americas,” which did indeed require intellectual reach and a great deal of reading, although not research or mastering impossible handwriting.

Needless to say, because I was a visitor to early America, and not a resident, I learned to appreciate excellent writing in the field. This is how I first became acquainted with Jill Lepore’s work. I was swotting for my first turn teaching this course twenty years ago, and read The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, which had just come out in paper.

I mention this for two reasons. The less important one is also personal, but signified a pivotal turn in how I imagined the trajectory of my career: I learned that it was possible to take risks in this otherwise hidebound profession called history, and succeed at them. The Name of War, along with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1991), John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994), and Richard Wightman Fox’s Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal (1999) radically altered my consciousness about what historical writing could accomplish.

But second, to return to These Truths, what seems neglected in the published commentary on this mammoth, synthetic, and comprehensive volume about the American past, is not just that Lepore is a historian who has great scope, who has now written successfully in a range of fields normally considered discreet and exclusive among Americanists. That is an obvious fact. But what is also neglected is that questions of American identity formation, its many ugly contradictions and repressed fears; and questions about how such political identities are conceived and communicated, have been baked into Lepore’s work from the moment that she first set fingertip to keyboard. And this is the theme of These Truths that unites the many chapters of this book, compelling the reader forward to a profoundly unsettled present.

As a not insignificant corollary to the place of identity formation to American history (something that is quite different from the mixed role of identity politics in contemporary scholarship), I agree with the urgency of the larger project Lepore proposes in this book. The task is first, to inform a larger public; and second, to spur historians forward to engage the present through a past that is as correct, in its factual details and its interpretations, as possible. It’s not an easy job to do, and it gets harder the closer a scholar gets to 2019. As someone who has been part of a loose confederation of historians who are interested in the writing of a recent past, I am simultaneously aware of how technically difficult it is to write about the last several decades of our national past (I just completed a draft of a book that ends in 2016), and how necessary it is to try. It is necessary because so much of our popular media, mostly conservative but also liberal, seems to be committed to selling waves of interpretive nonsense, on a daily basis, that are based on bad claims about American history.

I am speaking, of course, of television, radio, social media, and the vast numbers of web publications. Much of what counts as mainstream news seems to exist only to mobilize outrage, or to urge Americans to support inane and ill-conceived policies that drain its audience of nearly everything valuable: our data, our money, and our cultural institutions. These losses, we are told, are historically inevitable. As Lepore wrote in her book about the Tea Party in 2010, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, right wing activists at both the grass roots and the corporate level had selectively mobilized themes from the American Revolution and Early Republic to argue for regressive policies in the present.

In another vein, I would suggest — having myself originally been a scholar of the New myself — I find the idea of the “Green New Deal” similarly disturbing, in that it mobilizes the idea of a Rooseveltian New Deal that actually never happened, in the interests of progressive policies that probably should happen. The Green New Deal is socialism, and I think that’s a good thing. But the New Deal of the 1930s wasn’t socialism, and contemporary policies should not be sold to us in the name of a political program that was essentially quite cautious in its ambitions. The New Deal did not produce the kind of strong state that conservative now (sometimes quite disingenuously) claim to fear, one that would deliver universal health care and broad based support for working people. But it did produce a strong state that many of them love: I am talking, of course, about the FBI, principles for surveillance, and an enhanced national prison system, all of which created the basic legal infrastructure for mass incarceration and the national security state that we live in today.

Now, everything that I just said should be taken in ancillary support of what Lepore says in this book, and in the various interviews and articles about that have followed it. We may disagree about things here and there as people normally do, but we do agree that national history, and honest debates about it, are political work. To paraphrase a very recent article Lepore wrote in Foreign Affairs, comprehensive histories of the nation are neglected work that has, not so suddenly, become very urgent, as the historic divisions about what the United States is, what it has been, and what it should become are now being undermined by a very different sets of facts intended to promote confusion and conspiracy. “Writing national history creates plenty of problems,” Lepore writes; “But not writing national history creates more problems, and these problems are worse.”

Books can, of course, reflect the excitement — and the problems — of other media forms that have also proposed arguments about the nation. Today those platforms are electronic, but media promoting alternative histories to mass audiences have existed for centuries. One example is the panorama — otherwise known as “An Apparatus for Exhibiting Pictures,” which became popular in the late eighteenth century as nations were grappling with how to tell stories about their achievements but literacy rates were low. The panorama was an early version of what we would now call virtual reality, a form of telling stories through visual displays patented by the English painter Edward Barker in 1787 and first exhibited in 1788. Supported and unfurled by two mechanical cylinders, the panorama permitted audiences an illusion of truth: seeing the horizon of an entire city in 360 degree perspective.

Audiences came to see it in droves. Interestingly, the first city that Barker painted was not an English city, but Edinburgh: he exhibited this first panorama there for a year, while he built an exhibition hall in London, and it was installed there in 1789. The panorama would later be most famously used to portray the battles of the many continental wars that plagued Europe until the end of the Napoleonic period.

There are two things that are interesting to me about this as a writer of books. The first is, of course, that England had, quite recently, seen one of its possessions break away: in 1787, the Constitutional Convention was meeting in Philadelphia to ratify the outcome of the American Revolution in a definitive act of nation-making. By 1789 the proof of the American pudding seemed to be at hand, as the United States elected its first president, vice president and Congress under that constitution. As Lepore reminds us in These Truths, this was a particularly delicate time in North American history. It was full of uncertainty and contradictory ideas about human freedom, that – through a combination of idealistic and invidious compromises — created a new nation that both drew on, and was distinct from, its origins in English and Continental thought. This claim to “freedom” was also marked by clear threads of struggle that remain with us to this day — the reaffirmation of slavery, Indian removal, and a franchise limited to white, male property owners. Understanding this moment as precisely as possible is critical, given how muddled it gets in today’s more frenetic, hectic and dishonest conversations about the commitments that human liberty require from all of us.

But to return to the panorama: at the exact same time that English people were forced to accept that their national ambitions had been curbed in North America, Barker conceived a novel, and profitable, mechanism for re-imagining English national ambition by displaying a stunningly realistic portrait of a nearer empire — Scotland — that had been successfully incorporated into a Great Britain. That Barker’s second panorama, “London from the Roof of the Albion Mills,” would put at its center the Mill, rather than, say, Parliament or St. James Palace, was a major statement about what a new vision for an imperial nation would require from its people. This industrial, rather than mercantile, vision suppressed the ambitions and welfare of the vast majority of the English people, not to mention imperial subjects, but would instruct them with spectacles designed to entertain and incorporate them in the project of their own immiseration.

I mention this because, in my lifetime, this has been the criticism of the big, synthetic, literary national histories that replaced the panorama over the next. two centuries. The better written they are, the logic goes, and the more they incorporate, the more they seduce in the larger project of nation-making. So, I want to end with two points that I hope will spur more discussion as These Truths continues to make its way into the world. One is, having read in the past. Year both These Truths and Nikolaus Wachsmann’s majestic KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2016) which displaces the Holocaust for a larger, synthetic vision, that I no longer think it is true that synthetic histories do as much damage as they do good. I think they offer us more history, which them permits us to understand what we care about most in a larger context.

Finally, I think such histories set a new standard for excellence, aimed at those of us with less ambitious goals, about how to recreate the worlds we seek to write about with as much verisimilitude, intentionality and accessibility as possible. They should also remind us that history is always imperfect: mistakes will be made, and in time, new truths revealed. Whatever the scope of the final project — say, 792 pages of printed text or a painting of 250 square meters panoramic painting — we will ultimately leave the project incomplete, unfinished and necessarily renewable.

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor at Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter @TenuredRadical

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