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Popular Uses of History in American Life

by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen


"[The authors] discovered that, for the most part, people are more involved in history than expected. . . . A fascinating study."


&endash;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."


&endash;John Gillis, professor of history, Rutgers University


Does history really have anything to do with the everyday lives of Americans? In a sweeping survey conducted over nearly a decade and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen asked 1,500 Americans about their connection to the past. Their surprisingly candid results make up THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST: Popular Uses of History in American Life (Columbia University Press; November 12, 1998; $27.50). The authors found that while textbook history leaves many people cold, the past is neither distant nor insignificant to Americans. Instead, it is a pervasive part of Americans' everyday lives&endash;something that provides a foundation for understanding the present and anticipating the future.


Rosenzweig and Thelen find that Americans forge links with the past in a myriad of ways.

Some people make photo albums, collect antiques, or visit historic battlefields. Others keep diaries, plan annual family gatherings, and spend time researching the family tree. Some even write letters to deceased loved ones. These links to the past help many people to grapple with the profound question of how to live. One black man from Memphis, who had taken his children to visit a civil rights organization started by his grandfather, tells of the way the civil rights movement taught him a basic moral lesson in racial equality. And a young woman from Ohio speaks of how the birth of her first child caused her to reflect on the ways that her parents' example would help her become a good mother.


THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST also shows how race and ethnicity affect the way 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, or the violation of Indian treaties.

Filled with insightful analysis and fascinating quotes from respondents, THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST offers a candid&endash;and often moving&endash;picture of the way all kinds of different Americans relate to their own history and that of their country.



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.



Title: THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST: Popular Uses of History in American Life

Authors: Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Publication Date: November 12, 1998

Page Count: 291

Price: $27.50 cloth

ISBN: 0-231-11148-7






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