In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture

By Michael Kammen | Go to book overview

Introduction

During the past decade readers and writers of history have been intrigued, to an unprecedented degree, by three large and perplexing issues. One involves the nature of historians' personal commitments or concerns, and consequently the possible limits of their objectivity in reconstructing and understanding the past, especially in the realm of motives, beliefs, and modes of behavior. 1

A second problematic issue has engaged legislators and policy makers at several levels along with people who manage cultural institutions and those who mobilize perceptions of the past for commercial or political purposes: What is the appropriate role of cultural programs in the civic sector and the relative responsibility of government, if any, to support or enhance cultural agendas and activities for the public?

A third problematic issue has generated an extraordinary range of publications during the 1990s. It concerns the nature and functions of collective (or social) memory in American life, particularly given the traditional propensity of this society for being present-minded and having an unreliable attention span -- indeed, having a clear penchant for reconfiguring the past in order to make it comfortably congruent with contemporary needs and assumptions. 2

The essays that constitute this volume address such issues from a perspective shaped by more than three decades of writing, teaching, and especially serving on the advisory boards of various history-oriented museums and organizations. The focus and emphases of my tripartite schematization in this book correspond directly to the three major issues outlined above. This is a work about the historian's vocation, about history and culture in American public life, and about changing perceptions of the past in the United States over a significant span of generations.

Such issues cannot be fully comprehended in a vacuum. Not only does

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