In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture

By Michael Kammen | Go to book overview

6
Myth, Memory, and Amnesia in American Historical Art

It has long been commonplace for skillful historians to think of themselves as artists, or to achieve recognition as "artists" painting with words. That aspiration characterized such prominent mid-nineteenthcentury romantic historians as William Hickling Prescott and Francis Parkman, as well as many of their contemporaries. Alternatively, this essay considers artists who aimed to record or to envision history. If they romanticized the past, so did the prestigious historians who were their peers. Examining the artists' careers may suggest to us that a tension existed between pursuit of the romantic and the authentic, though in reality the tension lies more in our perceptions than in their work. These artists did not regard authenticity and romanticism as incompatible or incongruous values. The former had to do with historical veracity as they understood it; the latter involved the spirit and emotional significance of what they depicted, not to mention its meaning for Americans in search of historically informed self-knowledge -- as individuals and also collectively as a people. 1

Although history presented as an art form has a venerable tradition -- one

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