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Rethinking the Past in a Changing World
By Eric Foner
Hill and Wang
233 pgs. US$24/C$38.95
Caring about history
By Steven Martinovich
The title of a book, especially in the non-fiction world, usually implies a contract with a potential reader. Eric Foner's Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, coincidently the name of a 1994 PBS segment he appeared on, would lead a person to believe that the noted historian's collection of essays deals with how we perceive history against the backdrop of our times. Unfortunately, however, Foner's latest effort is little what the title promises.
It's a pity because in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Foner could have shown us how shared experiences like those of that day end up becoming a part of the collective consciousness of a nation and even the world. "Filtered through memory, history gives meaning to people's experiences," he writes at one point. Foner, however, had an entirely different agenda then showing how we perceive history.
Who Owns History? is really a book length argument for Foner's own politics. He opens his collection with an essay explaining why he became a historian, something he attributes to the fact that his Communist father and uncle were blacklisted in the purges of the 1950s ("[I]t seems in retrospect inevitable that I would become an historian"). From his own student activist days to his academic career, Foner has consistently utilized his socialist sensibilities as the basis for his work.
That's readily apparent in the essays that form Who Owns History? From an admiring portrait of his mentor Richard Hofstader, whom he lightly chastises for his increasing political conservatism in the years before his death, to a dated essay exploring American racial issues in contrast with the fall of Communism, to a study of African-Americans and the American constitution, Foner rarely fails in excoriating conservatives and arguing the "living constitution" dogma.
No one should seriously argue that a historian's opinions have no place in their work. The activity of exploring history by its very nature, after all, relies on interpretation. An open minded academic, however, should realize the inherent danger of attempting to replace one version of history with another. Where Foner repeatedly goes wrong is in his rejecting one outmoded orthodoxy in favour of another.
Of course, no effort is without some redeeming points. Foner does score points with his criticism of Ken Burns' nine-part documentary The Civil War and its portrayal of that conflict as a battle between whites, ignoring many of the other causes and failing to explore the aftermath, including Reconstruction. Foner is also entirely correct when he argues that history is as important now as it has ever been. As he stated, it gives meaning to our experiences. It's a shame that he didn't make that the central focus of his book.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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