The Presence of the Past

Popular Uses of History in American Life

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen

Columbia University Press

The Presence of the Past

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Pub Date: March 2000

ISBN: 9780231111492

320 Pages

Format: Paperback

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Pub Date: October 1998

ISBN: 9780231111485

320 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $95.00£79.00

Pub Date: November 1998

ISBN: 9780231500487

320 Pages

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List Price: $31.99£27.00

The Presence of the Past

Popular Uses of History in American Life

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen

Columbia University Press

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.

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, Journal of American History

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

Journal of Popular Culture

A fascinating study.

Library Journal

This is a book of stunning revelations with huge significance for all Americans. Rosenzweig and Thelen provide irrefutable survey evidence of how deeply ordinary people are engaged with the past, but at the same time are alienated from the history they have been taught in school and encounter in the media. Their findings pose an immense challenge to existing institutions, but also encourage us to imagine a cultural revolution in historical practice consistent with the best in our intellectual and democratic traditions.

John Gillis, Rutgers University

The quotes from actual survey interviews set to rest the myth that Americans are not interested in history. Instead, the Americans they surveyed challenge educators, museums, authors, and filmmakers to present history in authentic and experiential ways that engage them as active participants.

Barbara Franco, Executive Director, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Introduction: Scenes from a Survey
The Presence of the Past: Patterns of Popular Historymaking
Using the Past to Live in the Present: Relationships, Identity, Immorality
Using the Past to Shape the Future: Building Narratives, Taking Responsibility
"Experience is the Best Teacher": Participation, Mediation, Authority, Trust
Beyond the Intimate Past: Americans and Their Collective Pasts
History in Black and Red: African Americans and American Indians and Their Collective Pasts
Afterthoughts: Everyone a Historian, by Roy Rosenzweig
Afterthoughts: A Participatory Historical Culture, by David Thelen
Appendix 1: How We Did the Survey
Appendix 2: Tables

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.