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    • March 2000
    • 9780231111492
  • 320 Pages
  • Paperback
  • $29.00

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    • October 1998
    • 9780231111485
  • 320 Pages
  • Hardcover
  • $90.00

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    • November 1998
    • 9780231500487
  • 320 Pages
  • E-book
  • $28.99

The Presence of the Past

Popular Uses of History in American Life

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen

Some people make photo albums, collect antiques, or visit historic battlefields. Others keep diaries, plan annual family gatherings, or stitch together patchwork quilts in a tradition learned from grandparents. Each of us has ways of communing with the past, and our reasons for doing so are as varied as our memories. In a sweeping survey, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen asked 1,500 Americans about their connection to the past and how it influences their daily lives and hopes for the future. The result is a surprisingly candid series of conversations and reflections on how the past infuses the present with meaning.

Rosenzweig and Thelen found that people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future. By using these narratives to mark change and create continuity, people chart the courses of their lives. A young woman from Ohio speaks of giving birth to her first child, which caused her to reflect upon her parents and the ways that their example would help her to become a good mother. An African American man from Georgia tells how he and his wife were drawn to each other by their shared experiences and lessons learned from growing up in the South in the 1950s. Others reveal how they personalize historical events, as in the case of a Massachusetts woman who traces much of her guarded attitude toward life to witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on television when she was a child.

While the past is omnipresent to Americans, "history" as it is usually defined in textbooks leaves many people cold. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that history as taught in school does not inspire a strong connection to the past. And they reveal how race and ethnicity affects how Americans perceive the past: while most white Americans tend to think of it as something personal, African Americans and American Indians are more likely to think in terms of broadly shared experiences--like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the violation of Indian treaties."

Rosenzweig and Thelen's conclusions about the ways people use their personal, family, and national stories have profound implications for anyone involved in researching or presenting history, as well as for all those who struggle to engage with the past in a meaningful way.

About the Author

ROY ROSENZWEIG is professor of history and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the author of several books including The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (with Elizabeth Blackmar). He is also the coauthor of Who Built America?, a two-volume multimedia CD-ROM.DAVID THELEN is professor of history at Indiana University and editor of the Journal of American History. He is also the editor of Discovering America: Essays on the Search for an Identity, and the author of several books including Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television.

Rosenzweig and Thelen have raised imaginative and important questions. They have written an important book that all historians should read and debate.

Richard White, Stanford University

This book has less to do with history than popular sociology-- and seems to have begun with a thesis and then proved it.

A fascinating study.

Introduction: Scenes from a SurveyThe Presence of the Past: Patterns of Popular HistorymakingUsing the Past to Live in the Present: Relationships, Identity, ImmoralityUsing the Past to Shape the Future: Building Narratives, Taking Responsibility"Experience is the Best Teacher": Participation, Mediation, Authority, TrustBeyond the Intimate Past: Americans and Their Collective PastsHistory in Black and Red: African Americans and American Indians and Their Collective PastsAfterthoughts: Everyone a Historian, by Roy RosenzweigAfterthoughts: A Participatory Historical Culture, by David ThelenAppendix 1: How We Did the SurveyAppendix 2: TablesNotesIndex