Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age

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Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age. Gary R. Edgerton and Peter C. Rollins, eds. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001. 392 pp. $29.95 hbk.

There exists a long-standing tension within the field of historiography between professional scholarly historians and popular historians whose work is created to be more accessible to the general populous. Some of the concerns expressed by scholarly critics over the "popularizing" of history, especially as appears on television, are understandable and appropriate. Televised history invariably is experienced as televised drama, stressing narrative and biography, intimacy and immediacy, and sense of closure at the end of the segment.

However, in Television Histories, editors Gary Edgerton and Peter Rollins correctly assert that the majority of history that Americans consume will come to them via the television, even if some "accuracy" is lost through the dramatic retelling. Indeed, accuracy of an event, no matter who records or retells it, can be difficult to pinpoint, and some level of mythic response is inevitable. But Edgerton posits that it is as important to know how and why a particular remembered version is constructed at a given time as it is to know the version itself. Myth and history, he maintains, sit not in opposition to each other, but on a continuum, and, like it or not, televisual histories become part of the collective memory and consciousness of a people.

Edgerton, professor and chair of the Communication and Theatre Arts Department at Old Dominion University and co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television, and Rollins, Regents Professor of English at Oklahoma State University and editor of the journal Film and History, have collected a marvelous assortment of essays for this edited volume. They have sorted those essays into four sections: prime-time entertainment as historian; television documentary as historian; television news and public affairs programming as historian; and television production, reception, and history.

The structure works well, and most of the chapters are interesting and well-written. Steve Anderson, in his chapter "History TV and Popular Memory," borrows from Foucault and others to build the case that popular memory and oral histories can serve as a site of resistance for marginalized groups when their stories run counter to the official version. Anderson further argues that television benefits the public through presenting oppositional readings of history, meaning that viewers can negotiate their own versions, and that television leads to a more creative remembering of the past that may contrast against the past presented by the official historians.

Mimi White, in her chapter "Masculinity and Femininity," employs a feminist perspective in an interesting comparison between the Indiana Jones Chronicles and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Both programs represent history (albeit, revisionist) for popular consumption while negotiating terms for historical understanding. …