Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Historians and Audiences: Comment on Tristram Hunt and Geoffrey Timmins

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Historians and Audiences: Comment on Tristram Hunt and Geoffrey Timmins

Article excerpt

Historian Claude Bowers was one of the great speakers of his era. As a high school student in Indiana in the 1890s, when debate was more important than basketball, he was a champion debater and also won the Indiana State High School Oratorical Contest with a speech on "Hamilton the Constructionist." Out of that experience as an Indianapolis schoolboy, he developed a lifelong enthusiasm for history and for Hamilton's opponent, Thomas Jefferson. In 1925, he published his best-selling study of Jefferson and Hamilton. Four years later, he sealed his reputation as one of the most widely read historians (albeit one who had himself never graduated from college) of the interwar period with, The Tragic Era, which had a first printing of an incredible 100,000 copies and went through twelve subsequent printings. Bowers's history profoundly affected public debates and his historical writing both grew out of and reinforced his own active political role, which led him among other things to be the keynote speaker at the 1928 Democratic National Convention. (1)

There is a darker side to this model of the publicly engaged historian. Bowers's Tragic Era popularized for an enormous audience the scholarly and racist version of Reconstruction, which saw it as an atrocity perpetrated on a blameless South by "emissaries of hate" from the North and incompetent, egotistic and lustful Southern African Americans. Bowers had a direct partisan purpose in his book, hoping to discredit the Republican Party in the South and re-solidify Southern support for the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the nomination of the Catholic Al Smith.

Bowers's story serves as a reminder, if we need one, that the question of historians and audiences is complicated one, that involves who is speaking, what they are saying, the venues in which they are speaking, and the relationship between the speaker and the audience rather than just the sheer number of people reached. One of the key and understudied questions about public history is not the message or the messenger but how diverse audiences receive the message.

Tristam Hunt's excellent essay on "Reality, Identity and Empathy: The Changing Face of Social History Television" is well attuned to many of those complexities. Rather than a rant or a rave, he provides a mixed picture of good news and bad news about social history on British television.

The good news is that history is booming. Large numbers of Britons are signing up with heritage institutes, record numbers of visitors are flocking to historic sites, more students are studying history at collegiate and pre-collegiate levels, historical programming fills TV screens and radio channels, and book shelves overflow with historical titles. Americans will nod their heads in agreement at many of these findings--history enrollments are up in the United States as well, for example, as are sales of history books, although the picture for history museums seems pretty gloomy, especially at outdoor history museums, which have seen long-term declines in visitation. (2)

The further good news at least from British shores is that there is some very good history being presented in these venues, including the one about which professional historians are likely to be most skeptical--television. Historical drama documentaries, Hunt reports, show that social history "can be adapted intelligently to a television audience." And he offers a number of praiseworthy examples such as the Georgian Underworld, which "delivered a collection of rich social insights into the forgotten eighteenth century." Similarly, the BBC Series, The Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl provided "a nuanced, sophisticated narrative of class identity and social structure." Even Reality TV supplies, according to Hunt "elements of insight into the lived experiences of the past."

But while British historical television is not a vast wasteland, it also does not offer grounds for celebration and, in the end, the bad news in Hunt's report overwhelms the good. …

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