Pages from the Past: History and Memory in American Magazines

Pages from the Past: History and Memory in American Magazines

Pages from the Past: History and Memory in American Magazines

Pages from the Past: History and Memory in American Magazines

Excerpt

In academic circles and among social critics, it has long been a truism that journalism is ahistorical, especially so in America, the country presumably interested only in today and tomorrow. Yet in the opening years of the twenty-first century, the content of American journalism—and the broader national media culture—suggests the opposite: that we are a country obsessed with yesterday. Media treatments of yesterday may not be, strictly, history, yet the past permeates current journalism.

The backward glance of modern life is not merely a matter of media content. We are a nation of scrapbookers and family-reuniters who haunt antique stores looking for decorating touches of the “authentic” old days. We shop in boutiques selling vintage clothing that is as likely to be from the 1980s as the 1920s; we surf e-bay and cable-television channels in search of collectibles; we reenact military battles; we visit “living history villages” and heritage sites. A more somber side of this feeling for the past is our growing tendency to collectively memorialize the dead, with outpourings of grief over the loss of figures from Elvis Presley and John Lennon to Princess Diana and JFK Jr. The urge to memorialize was understandably intense and widespread just after September 11th. But now, because of the shape and rhetoric of those rituals, anyone who dies tragically in a public way is a candidate to be called a “hero” and to be “remembered” with flowers and candles and memorial plaques, by strangers as well as family.

These trends occur in the broader culture, but media play a part in their existence and enactment. It is, after all, from the media that we get many (perhaps most) of our notions about history as “heritage.” And it is through news coverage that we learn how to behave publicly when tragedy occurs or famous people die. After former president Ronald Reagan died in early June 2004—one day before the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day—mournful-looking Americans lined up outside the national Capitol where he lay in state and lined the California highway route of his funeral motorcade. Yet despite the insistence of the news media, this behavior was not spontaneous: these ordinary mourners were covered by news media because they were there, but many of them were there because they were being covered by news media. Although Americans long have participated in memorial and civic rituals, the behavior of . . .

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