In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture

In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture

In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture

In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture


Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his People of Paradox (1973), and the Francis Parkman Prize for A Machine That Would Go of Itself (1987), Michael Kammen is widely regarded as one of our most important, and most diversely talented, cultural historians. David Brion Davis has said of him that "no other historian of Michael's generation has such a broad and concrete grasp of 'American culture' in all its manifestations from constitutional law to formal painting and popular culture." Now, In The Past Lane brings together writings from a span of more than a decade, covering the broad spectrum of Kammen's recent interests, including the role of the historian, the relationship between culture and the State, uses of tradition in American commercial culture, American historical art, memory distortion in American history, and the contested uses of history in American education, and much more. Here are major contributions to Kammen's work and to American cultural history. In the previously unpublished "Personal Identity and the Historian's Vocation," Kammen considers the complex interplay between historians' personal lives--their religion, ideology, race, gender, sexual orientation--and the history they write. Drawing on prominent historians' own self-reflections, in fascinating letters and memoirs, Kammen takes us inside the process of doing history and traces the movement away from delusions of objectivity to a more engaged and personal approach to the past. We find a lively exchange between David M. Potter and Richard Hofstadter, a personal account of a highly dramatic public debate between Arnold J. Toynbee and Allan Nevins, as well as delightful quotes from many important historians about their work, their beliefs, and their colleagues. We have, for example, Lewis Mumford at Christmas time informing a friend that he was using "the season of peace and cheer and goodwill to begin a murderous attack upon Mr. Bernard DeVoto, and Allan Nevins wryly recommending his multi-volume Civil War history, The Ordeal of the Union, as an ideal wedding present. In "Culture and the State in America," Kammen gives us an illuminating history of government funding for the arts which provides a surprising perspective on the current crises involving the NEA and NEH. He marshals his deep historical knowledge to argue that an elimination of public support will lead to an even greater loss of private support for the arts and humanities, and that the results will impoverish us all. Kammen addresses a range of other concerns in these essays, including the distinction between heritage and history, how multicultural art exhibits are developed, memory distortion in American history. Whether he's warning against historical amnesia, analyzing the iconography of judgment in American courthouses, considering American diversity, or reconsidering the issue of American exceptionalism, Kammen's remarkable essays show us the many ways the past informs, eludes, and yet gives birth to the present.


During the past decade readers and writers of history have been intrigued, to an unprecedented degree, by three large and perplexing issues. One involves the nature of historians' personal commitments or concerns, and consequently the possible limits of their objectivity in reconstructing and understanding the past, especially in the realm of motives, beliefs, and modes of behavior.

A second problematic issue has engaged legislators and policy makers at several levels along with people who manage cultural institutions and those who mobilize perceptions of the past for commercial or political purposes: What is the appropriate role of cultural programs in the civic sector and the relative responsibility of government, if any, to support or enhance cultural agendas and activities for the public?

A third problematic issue has generated an extraordinary range of publications during the 1990s. It concerns the nature and functions of collective (or social) memory in American life, particularly given the traditional propensity of this society for being present-minded and having an unreliable attention span -- indeed, having a clear penchant for reconfiguring the past in order to make it comfortably congruent with contemporary needs and assumptions.

The essays that constitute this volume address such issues from a perspective shaped by more than three decades of writing, teaching, and especially serving on the advisory boards of various history-oriented museums and organizations. The focus and emphases of my tripartite schematization in this book correspond directly to the three major issues outlined above. This is a work about the historian's vocation, about history and culture in American public life, and about changing perceptions of the past in the United States over a significant span of generations.

Such issues cannot be fully comprehended in a vacuum. Not only does . . .

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