America seemed to represent the future… yet by the end of the 19th century, we became a people obsessed with our past. A paradox not easily explained, and frankly, not wholly considered either. The recent passing of historian Michael Kammen received little fanfare nationally, but to younger academics everywhere, it represented a melancholy turning point.
Kammen’s epic study, “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture” … was standard reading for first year grad students across academia in the mid-1990’s. The difficult task of explaining why Americans simplify and revere their past was at the core of Kammen’s research- historians agreed with his thesis, students were primed for future frustration. The Civil War was indeed a transformative event, radically shifting our traditions of remembrance and honor. Prior to the war, argued Kammen, Americans viewed their past with casual indifference- the Civil War democratized our past- the masses wanted a story worthy of the sacrifices made in that most bloody struggle…American mythology began.
The good academic he was… Kammen was troubled by the wave of popular history that emerged in the 20th century. His analysis at times bordered on whining- why don’t ordinary folks pay more attention to academic history? To his credit, he never looked to assign blame- his study maintained an analytical approach- and his conclusions are if nothing else, valid. But, like many writers of his background, he misses the true point of historical remembrance- pride. Trying to explain it away with abstract concepts understood only in academic circles is manipulative. Our story is a complex, yet inspiring one, and the American people truly feel a part of it. The study of history is so compartmentalized that it cannot contemplate this collective remembrance. There is room for all types of historical study- academic, public, and popular history alike…. Kammen’s work proved it to be so… though it may not have been his intention.