Academic journal article Journalism History

Lincoln Was a "Red" and Washington a Bolshevik: Public Memory as Persuader in the Appeal to Reason

Academic journal article Journalism History

Lincoln Was a "Red" and Washington a Bolshevik: Public Memory as Persuader in the Appeal to Reason

Article excerpt

This study examines the uses of history and public memory in the Appeal to Reason, which was the most successful and powerful of the socialist newspapers in early twentieth-century America. The purpose is to explore how an alternative group made use of public memory, particularly in its journalistic endeavors. That such a publication would co-opt dominant-culture memories speaks to the complex relationship between sub-cultures and mainstream society. The Appeal used American history and icons in a variety of ways as tools of persuasion. Articles pointed out the misuse of history and memory, reconstructed history to promote the socialist cause, used historic icons to teach lessons, and celebrated specific heroes.

The press has played a role historically in building American collective consciousness and memory, and it has long relied upon history and memory in story telling. A wealth of scholarship exists on American public memory, with much of the recent work focusing on mainstream media.1 Yet such studies have not explored how alternative groups made use of public memory, particularly in their journalistic endeavors. This type of inquiry might seem unusual because public memory typically reflects dominant cultural values. In his 2000 book Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, Barry Schwartz noted that "commemorative resources have always been controlled by the dominant class.... The great narratives and symbols of official memory... are the means by which America's elite class beguiles and imposes its own values on the rest of society."2 Though the bulk of press content is not meant to "commemorate," the mainstream press still frequently offers up such narratives and symbols, legitimizing them for a mass audience and further establishing those prevailing cultural values.

Yet less-dominant groups also have sought to claim a part of collective memory. John Bodnar in Remaking America examined the struggle between national and particular ethnic memories in the early twentieth-century(3) and asserted that public memory has been part of an American political culture, rooted in dominant forces and organizations.4 However, he differentiated between official memory and vernacular memory and highlighted tensions between the two. His study focused on coverage of community festivals and commemorations in groups clinging to their ethnic heritage while trying to assimilate into the mainstream. But what about groups that openly criticized the established political and economic structure, or even called for revolution? In the early twentieth century, for example, socialists relied heavily on journalistic efforts to lure converts away from mainstream ideologies,5 often using American icons and historical symbols in their coverage. This study explores such alternative uses of collective memory in the most prominent socialist publication of the era and asks: How was American history and public memory used as a tool for persuasion in the Appeal to Reason in 1912 and 1920?

Public memory, of course, is not simply a shared record of the past but is a "body of beliefs about the past that help a public or society understand both its past and its present, and, by implication, its future."6 John Gillis in 1994 argued that memory is not fixed but merely a representation or subjective construction of reality.7 Such memory, then, would be distorted or even manipulated because it is, as Michael Schudson noted in 1995, "distributed across social institutions and cultural artifacts" and is "invariably and inevitably selective."8

The purposeful manipulation or amplification of certain colective memories is a difficult proposition, though not with out benefits for those who would gain power from preserving mainstream culture. Michael Kammen wrote in 1995, "The distortion of memories can, indeed, serve as a panacea in an age of anxiety."9 Yet he argued that the reasons for such distortions, even for public amnesia, are perhaps more complex. …

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