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Reviewed by:
  • History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880–1980
  • Mario DePillis
History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880–1980. By Ellen Fitzpatrick (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002. xi plus 318 pp. $39.95).

Since the early 1990s a great wave of books and articles on the nature of memory in human relations has swept through history, anthropology and other social science fields. The new theory of memory seems to have gained currency through the 1991 work of Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944.1 The French theory has taken many forms, but a common version has to do with the exploitation of the historical record, sometimes unconsciously, for political or other purposes. Collective forgetfulness can be part of the dynamic. [End Page 1116]

Fitzpatrick’s stimulating and invaluable work is a subtle application of the theory to the historiography of American history for the century before 1980. She does not deal with the manipulation of memory/history in every historical trend of those hundred years, but emphasizes one central misleading feature in the recent writing of American history: the vociferous claim of the younger historians of the 1960s and 1970s that they had created a New History. She shows that they were not all that new and that they had to misrepresent past historians to vaunt the exceptional nature of their new work. She seeks to place the “newness” of the work of the “within the larger panorama of American historical writing in the twentieth century” (p. 6). She seeks to question

the paradigm of “old” and “new” history by suggesting that the political roots of the new history reach back not simply to the 1960s and 1970s but deeper in the American past It is time now for both those who have celebrated and those who have criticized the new history to themselves “stand at the bar of historical justice” and face the past .


In the sixties and early seventies everything did indeed seem new, both in society and scholarship. A new generation of young historians gained access, they thought, to a clean slate on which to re-write the past in order to restore or emphasize topics that the previous generation, the so-called consensus historians, had allegedly ignored: conflict, race, gender, Native Americans, and social injustice. In the words of John Higham, who coined the expression “consensus history” in a famous essay of 1959, the works of historians like Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin, and even Richard Hofstadter represented “a massive grading operation to smooth over America’s social convulsions.” Commonality replaced conflict, and the consensus historians uncritically celebrated American exceptionalism and social peace. In the judgment of the “new historians” of the Sixties, the consensus historians of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s were guilty of producing a shallow and dishonest picture of the American past.

For anyone who taught and did research and editing during the sixties and early seventies the boastful younger historians of the day seemed justified in their claims. Quantitative methods, community studies, environmental studies; economic interpretation of slavery, industry, and labor; new studies of gender, class, ethnicity and culture; the history of “ordinary” people “from the bottom up” all seemed new and exciting. Older historians (like myself) tried to keep abreast of graduate students by attending seminars and conferences on the analysis of social history with computers, and one remembers struggling with great packs of IBM punch cards to do cross tabs on the relationships among class membership, ethnicity, upward mobility by examining how working hours were assigned within a factory, how many “meat meals” each ethnic or religious group could afford to feed their families in one week, and so on, in order to establish with the unassailable precision of figures and indices just what the relationship was, for example, between a male worker’s ethnicity and his upward mobility.

One could easily get caught up in the excitement. But Fitzpatrick, atfer reading a century’s worth of reviews, articles, books, association newsletters, private correspondence, and other materials, shows conclusively that the historians of the 1960s and 1970s had been manipulating memory. She documents the amazing frequency with which earlier...

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