How Have We Come so Far?

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.

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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.

1936-2013

1936-2013

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.

 

 

 

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