History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul A. Cohen | Go to book overview
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The Historically Reconstructed Past

In March 1989 the Tony Awards administration committee ruled that the musical "Jerome Robbins's Broadway," which had received rave reviews, was not a "revival" and was therefore eligible for the award as "best musical." The decision, which ended a hard-fought battle within the committee, had important financial implications, since the show, although doing excellently at the box office, had been very expensive to produce, and the best musical award, which it was now the hands-down favorite to win, carried the potential of millions of dollars in added ticket sales. The reason for the dispute in the first place (apart from the financial stakes involved) was that, although the Robbins show as a whole had never been presented on Broadway, it consisted almost entirely of elements that had. 1 It was an open question, therefore, whether it was a new show or a revival.

The question the Tony Awards committee resolved may also be posed with respect to the past as reconstructed by historians: revival or new show? Is the consummation of the historian's labors in essence a gathering together and re-presentation of things that have already happened, or is it in important respects a new production, lacking some elements that existed in the past and incorporating others that did not? People who are not historians may well be inclined to answer that it is the former, that retrieval of the past is precisely what historians are expected to do, and if they do something other than this, the end result is not history.

The position taken in this book is the exact reverse. However counterintuitive it may seem, I would argue (and I believe most practicing historians would join me) that the history the historian creates is in fact fundamentally different from the history people make. No matter how much of the original, experienced past historians choose or are able to build into their narratives, what they end up with will, in specific and identifiable ways, be different from that past. This is so, moreover, despite the fact that the process of narrativization in which the historian engages is not, in my


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History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth


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