Recycling the Past: Popular Uses of American History

Recycling the Past: Popular Uses of American History

Recycling the Past: Popular Uses of American History

Recycling the Past: Popular Uses of American History


This is a book that explores in detail the use that Americans have made of their history for commercial, cultural, and ideological purposes. It focuses on popular adaptations of historical incidents and artifacts to reveal how successive generations of Americans have been able to adapt their heritage to address the needs of their contemporaries. Further, it indicates how the past has helped to shape the attitudes of later generations toward their own society.


Leila Zenderland

In January 1977, over 130 million people witnessed the results of one American’s search for a usable past. the commercial success of Alex Haley’s book and television drama, Roots, surpassed the expectations of even its most optimistic promoters. For eight days, the nation followed “the saga of an American family” from slavery to freedom. Patrons in Harlem bars watched in silence; they refused to allow juke box music to break the spell even after episodes had ended. White viewers claimed to be seeing “black through different eyes.” Some black leaders even spoke of the series as “the most significant civil rights event since the Selma-toMontgomery march of 1965.” the phenomenon left media experts puzzled: why did an account of a slave family’s experiences from 1750 to 1870 speak so powerfully to black and white Americans of the 1970s?

Historians may have some clues to the answer, for they have long been aware of the power and the purposes of rewriting history. Haley’s title suggests that present behavior is grounded in past experience. Historiography also records the converse: the concerns of the present often necessitate a reconsideration of the past. Thus Charles Beard addressed his twentieth-century contemporaries by scrutinizing the finances of the founding fathers; and both Ulrich Phillips and W.E.B. Du Bois knew that interpretations of slavery and Reconstruction were critical for defending or denouncing the status quo. Yet Haley was not writing to correct the accounts of other historians. His work makes sense within another historiographic context: the past put to use by nonhistorians.

The essays collected in this volume all explore the ways that Americans other than historians have used experiences from the past. By examining sources ranging from the American dictionary to diplomatic memoirs, they

Roger Wilkins, “The Black Ghosts of History,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 1977,
p. 22.

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