J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Thinking about Feel-Good History

At the Panorama, the blog of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, Princeton professor Michael A. Blaakman just shared an essay titled “How Should History Make Us Feel?”

While Blaakman’s remarks were prompted by David McCullough’s book The Pioneers, which is the focus of the latest issue of S.H.E.A.R.’s journal, and by the flimsy “1776 Report” from the last Presidential administration, his concerns can apply to other history projects.
This was snowflake history—history designed to inspire, delight, or comfort, while sheltering its imagined audience from challenging questions about the past. [It] embodied an idea that is not going away anytime soon: that history’s purpose is to make people feel good. . . .

For most historians, meanwhile, the primary goal is not to make us feel one way or another, but to help us think: to understand prior worlds, to discover why events unfolded the way they did, and to explain how all of it has shaped the present. . . .

Stories [that center on the origins and character of the nation] carry a lot of baggage. They implicate a primary and deeply political category of their reader’s personal identity, in ways that do not bear as heavily on biographies, microhistories, and global histories, at least not by definition.

Is it inevitable that any nation-centered history will necessarily alienate whole constituencies, even within the nation itself? The optimist in me would like to think it’s not, because it seems more vital than ever for scholars of the early republic to help broad audiences understand themselves and the nation in historical context. As the United States’ semiquincentennial approaches, we will be called on increasingly to do so.
Blaakman sees the appeal of history books like McCullough’s lying in “drama,” and he suggests foregrounding the authors’ investigative process to produce that.

I think those books’ appeal comes from narrative, which includes moments of drama but goes beyond that one ingredient. The historian can indeed be the protagonist of a narrative, but so can the historical actors, even when the author concludes that history is shaped by larger forces and trends beyond individual actions.


Dan Mandell said...

My father was all about how stories of American history made one feel. No doubt that was in large part because he grew up in one of the poorest sections of Brooklyn and escaped through service in WWII. As a result, as I grew up in southern California and expressed an interest in history, he made sure family trips went to Civil War battlefields snd famous Revolution sites — that was what he saw as getting history lessons — and I’ll never forget how disappointed and even angry he was that Boston didn’t “preserve history” like Colonial Williamsburg, Obviously I went in a different direction, and although I don’t think he ever quite understood he did come to respect it.

G. Lovely said...

Can't help but notice the fifer in Willard's "Spirit of '76" is depicted with a beard...

J. L. Bell said...

The painting is definitely a product of its time—about a hundred years after the war it depicted.