The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

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9780878059850: The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

Although the American republic is a child of history, Americans are prone to historical forgetfulness. They tend to think of themselves as future-oriented. Even when history unites with American popular culture, it is often in the form of "docudrama," or conspiracy theories, and other varieties of pseudohistory.

Ed Yoder's exploration of the centrality of history in our lives blends an experienced journalist's zest for current trends with a lifelong interest in American and European history. In this book of linked essays, he writes about topics as diverse as the 1995 controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, Barbara Tuchman's success as a popular historian, the historical reputations of Lincoln and Jefferson, the fluctuations of presidential rankings, the revival of nationalist wars and rivalries in Eastern Europe, the politically charged dispute over the significance of Columbus's voyages on their 500th anniversary, the light thrown by William Faulkner's novels on the dilemma of black families, and the argument over "original intent" in constitutional interpretation.

Yoder shows, with an abundance of specific examples, how essential collective memory is to social understanding and self-knowledge. He argues that history, far from being a dry accumulation of facts, is a fascinating inquiry into "transformations" -how, for example, a thinly settled strip of Atlantic seaboard colonies became a nation, at first gradually and then in the revolutionary spasm of the summer of 1776.

Yoder also explores the puzzling American resistance to the study of the past, suggesting that Americans avoid history in part because they have luckily escaped the tragic calamities of older cultures. The myths of American innocence and exemption, he argues, have fostered an illusion that history as the teacher of vital lessons can be ignored, although it is actually the very matrix of the way we understand ourselves in the present.

Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group and a professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University. In 1979 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's view of how the study of history is our key to understanding the present

From Booklist:

Syndicated columnist Yoder, professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University, gathers nearly two dozen essays in this collection, taking on such subjects as "Presidents and Other Americans" (Columbus, Jefferson, Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and Martin Luther King) and the "`How's the President Doing?' Question"; the U.S. Constitution (three essays); nationalism (thoughts on the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit, Hitler, Yalta, Franco, Kennan, and the World War II internment of Japanese Americans); and history itself, from docu-drama and Barbara Tuchman through Martin Luther, Faulkner and the Black family, and American cities to discussions of "Church and State in Oxford" (where Yoder studied as a Rhodes scholar) and of his own Confederate ancestors. There is perhaps more inveighing against postmodern historical trends than the volume needs, but Yoder is generally a thoughtful and judicious, if conservative, commentator on past and present. Not an essential acquisition, but it will circulate where the author's column or previous books are popular. Mary Carroll

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