History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s

History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s

History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s

History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s


During the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, millions of Americans engaged with the past in brand-new ways. They became absorbed by historical miniseries like Roots, visited museums with new exhibits that immersed them in the past, propelled works of historical fiction onto the bestseller list, and participated in living history events across the nation. While many of these activities were sparked by the Bicentennial, M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska shows that, in fact, they were symptomatic of a fundamental shift in Americans' relationship to history during the 1960s and 1970s.

For the majority of the twentieth century, Americans thought of the past as foundational to, but separate from, the present, and they learned and thought about history in informational terms. But Rymsza-Pawlowska argues that the popular culture of the 1970s reflected an emerging desire to engage and enact the past on a more emotional level: to consider the feelings and motivations of historic individuals and, most importantly, to use this in reevaluating both the past and the present. This thought-provoking book charts the era's shifting feeling for history, and explores how it serves as a foundation for the experience and practice of history making today.


While professional historians may continue to regard themselves as
custodians of the nation’s past, the average person’s awareness of
his own history and the history of the United States has come from
a number of influences and has intensified in the last two decades.
Some history is learned in schools and universities, to be sure, but
some through motion pictures and television as well. One cannot
always vouch for the authenticity of such history, or indeed,
measure how it is perceived and how much the viewer absorbs. But
it cannot be denied that such influences have been considerable.

—JOHN hope franklin, from The Past Before Us, 1980

We mark out lives in memory, but we do not live there. I don’t
like the way America is opening its attic, dragging out all kinds of
junk and dressing up as if it could be young again just by playing
the old songs. When the kids do that, I’m afraid they’re afraid, and
a sense of future doom is moving them rather than a sense of
history. When middle-agers try it, they look as desperately foolish
as the fat drunk at the fraternity…. Nostalgia, I think, should be
folded carefully in the gut and carried quietly for comfort. It wears
quite poorly in the street.

—ART seidenbaum, “No More Nostalgia,” Los Angeles Times,
May 10, 1971

To even the most casual observer, American culture in the 1970s was flooded with history. Television viewers could tune into Happy Days, the Waltons, and Laverne and Sbirley, or to historical miniseries like Roots and Eleanor and Franklin. Blockbusters like The Great Gatsby and American Graffiti were accompanied by trends like the bell-bottom pant and platform shoe, which, when they first appeared, were deemed to be 1920s and 1930s throwbacks. the Gibson Girl, the Victorian Christmas, and other nineteenth-century motifs all enjoyed a certain standing in the 1970s aesthetic imagination and in the popularity of books such as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which seamlessly mixed historical figures like Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman with . . .

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