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Sense of History

Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life

David Glassberg
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Sense of History
    Book Description:

    As Americans enter the new century, their interest in the past has never been greater. In record numbers they visit museums and historic sites, attend commemorative ceremonies and festivals, watch historically based films, and reconstruct family genealogies. The question is, Why? What are Americans looking for when they engage with the past? And how is it different from what scholars call "history"? In this book, David Glassberg surveys the shifting boundaries between the personal, public, and professional uses of the past and explores their place in the broader cultural landscape. Each chapter investigates a specific encounter between Americans and their history: the building of a pacifist war memorial in a rural Massachusetts town; the politics behind the creation of a new historical festival in San Francisco; the letters Ken Burns received in response to his film series on the Civil War; the differing perceptions among black and white residents as to what makes an urban neighborhood historic; and the efforts to identify certain places in California as worthy of commemoration. Along the way, Glassberg reflects not only on how Americans understand and use the past, but on the role of professional historians in that enterprise. Combining the latest research on American memory with insights gained from Glassberg's more than twenty years of personal experience in a variety of public history projects, Sense of History offers stimulating reading for all who care about the future of history in America.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-094-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    David Glassberg
  5. 1 Sense of History
    (pp. 1-22)

    WHEN I RECALL my education as a historian, I think of two tables. One was located where I went to graduate school, at Johns Hopkins University, an ancient rectangular dark cherry that filled the seminar room on the second floor of Gilman Hall. Legend had it that the first generation of professional historians, Herbert Baxter Adams, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Woodrow Wilson, had sat around the same table; we students, seeking to follow in their footsteps, searched the underside for the places where they might have carved their initials. Through fall and spring, seminar after seminar, I returned to the...

  6. 2 Remembering a War
    (pp. 23-58)

    THROUGHOUT THE twentieth century, Americans have always had a war that they could remember. World War I veterans lived to see their children fight in World War II and Korea; World War II veterans watched their children struggle in Vietnam. The American landscape, relatively unscarred by battles of the twentieth century compared with those of Europe and Asia, nevertheless is dense with reminders of the nation’s warriors and their wars. I take my daughter to Amherst’s War Memorial Swimming Pool; watch baseball with my father in Philadelphia at Veterans Stadium; march with my son in the annual Memorial Day parade...

  7. 3 Celebrating the City
    (pp. 59-86)

    IN THE PRECEDING chapter, we saw how the residents of one New England municipality set aside a place in their town to remember a national event, and how this place soon became an important symbol of local community identity. Indeed, many of the public historical places we create—war memorials, history museums, roadside markers or plaques on buildings—make claims to local distinctiveness as well as tell stories about the past. This is especially true for perhaps the most popular, yet ephemeral, way of representing local history in public, the local civic celebration or historical reenactment. The public commemoration of...

  8. 4 Watching The Civil War
    (pp. 87-108)

    THE MARRIAGE OF history and popular culture that was evident in San Francisco’s Portolá Festival has existed throughout the twentieth century, and not only in civic celebrations designed to communicate a political message to the public. Rest stops along highways are full of racks brimming with brochures for historical attractions designed primarily to make money, which live or die depending on how many visitors they draw through their gates. My morning newspaper displays ads for television and motion picture productions “based on a true story,” trying to amass enough viewers to make a profit for their sponsoring studios or advertisers....

  9. 5 Place and Placelessness in American History
    (pp. 109-128)

    THE DESIRE of those watchingThe Civil Warfor a connection, if only through a television screen, with the actual places where their ancestors had been, reveals the importance of emotional attachments to particular places as a vital component of Americans’ sense of history. We professional historians have a hard time understanding this because our own professional education inculcates an indifference to place. Unlike many professionals who can choose where they will live and work, our historians in training, especially those seeking a position teaching college, soon learn that they stand a slim chance of ever winding up in a...

  10. 6 Rethinking New England Town Character
    (pp. 129-164)

    WHEN CHRISTOPHER Kenneally interviewed Ken Burns forUSAirmagazine, he traveled to Burns’s home in Walpole, New Hampshire, which he described as “a small quintessential New England village on the banks of the Connecticut River.”¹ Keneally’s words bring to mind a picture of white houses clustered around a church and common, of Burns and his family taking their place in the community alongside a set of sturdy characters who have just stepped out from the Thornton Wilder playOur Townor a Norman Rockwell painting. There is a certain timelessness implied in Keneally’s vision of the New England village as...

  11. 7 Making Places in California
    (pp. 165-202)

    ONE YEAR after completing my report to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities on town character in New England, I moved to the Central Valley of California. This was where I wanted to be. I was married to a Californian, and thanks to a one-year fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the hospitality of the history department at the University of California at Davis, our children finally would be able to spend time near their maternal grandparents, who lived in Grass Valley, just on the other side of Sacramento. I wanted to expand my research and writing...

  12. Conclusion: Finding Our Place
    (pp. 203-212)

    RETURNING FROM California, I soon find myself back in the classroom. After the excitement of living someplace new, in a part of the country with lots of new construction and few clouds in the sky, it is hard to readjust to the humid East, the stale air of the crumbling concrete building in which I work, the familiar responsibilities of my job.

    This semester, the job includes teaching the required historiography course, a graduate seminar introducing students to the history of the historical profession and important historical works of the past century. The course is designed to impart a sense...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 213-262)
  14. Index
    (pp. 263-268)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-270)