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Sense of History

The Place of the Past in American Life

David Glassberg

Publication Year: 2001

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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Dedication

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Table of Contents

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Illustrations

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pp. ix-xi

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Preface

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pp. xiii-xvii

THE ESSAYS IN this book explore the various ways Americans have understood and used the past in the twentieth century. I drafted them over a span of a decade, and although portions of some have appeared as conference papers or articles, they have all been extensively revised to create a...

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1. Sense of History

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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...

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2. Remembering a War

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pp. 23-57

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...

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3. Celebrating the City

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pp. 59-85

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...

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4. Watching The Civil War

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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...

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5. Place and Placelessness in American History

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pp. 109-127

THE DESIRE of those watching The Civil War for 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...

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6. Rethinking New England Town Character

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pp. 129-163

WHEN CHRISTOPHER Kenneally interviewed Ken Burns for USAir magazine, 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...

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7. Making Places in California

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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...

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Conclusion: Finding Our Place

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pp. 203-211

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...

Notes

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pp. 213-262

Index

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pp. 263-267

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760949
E-ISBN-10: 1613760949
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558492806
Print-ISBN-10: 1558492801

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 60
Publication Year: 2001

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- Philosophy.
  • United States -- History, Local -- Philosophy.
  • Public history -- United States.
  • United States -- Historiography.
  • Historiography -- United States.
  • Memory -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • National characteristics, American.
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