- Popular Media and the American Revolution: Shaping Collective Memory by Janice Hume
Popular Media and the American Revolution: Shaping Collective Memory by Janice Hume evaluates the influence of the press in shaping the national understanding of the American Revolution and, by proxy, American identity, by tracking references to the Revolutionary War found in print and electronic media from 1787 to 2008. Prompted by her cultural study of American obituaries in Obituaries in American Culture (2000), Hume’s current project attends to the journalistic shaping of America’s favorite origin story and examines its resonance and impact on collective memory. To establish the media as a necessary agent in the fashioning of the Revolution for popular consumption, Hume mines over five hundred articles, numerous regional narratives, and fourteen recorded programs from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for their references to the American Revolution, sources which range from the comprehensive to the cursory, from the incendiary to the banal.
Hume uses the prologue to highlight the importance of the Revolution to American identity, to address the effect of commemoration on collective memory, and, most centrally, to position the media as instrumental to the cultural understanding of the War. Eager to be on equal footing with other nations, America found a salable narrative in the Revolution and fashioned its national identity to fit the spirit of the epoch, even when the narrative offered more fiction than fact. Stories of Continental heroism and Yankee virtue circulated by the popular, widely-read press, according to Hume, not only communicated the history that played out during the War, but first created and then established its importance to national identity. As a result, the narrative created by the press was met by an audience eager both to collect on its Revolutionary inheritance and to remind the next generation of its valuable legacy. The Revolution may not have been televised, to borrow from Gil Scott-Heron, but, according to Hume’s study, its understanding was arguably conceived and subsequently determined by the media of the early Republic.
Chapter two, “The Gathering Mists of Time,” surveys sixty early histories of the Revolution printed in the American popular press from 1787–1860 and, [End Page 188] as a result of its content and intent, offers a conceptual foundation for the rest of the book. The chapter builds on Carolyn Kitch’s understanding of magazines as “memory sites” as it examines the media fascination with all things Revolutionary in order to understand the War’s impact on the collective memory of Americans. Descriptions of military engagement and other “incidents,” as well as biographical portraits and various anecdotes, by Hume’s account, implicitly advertise the importance of the Revolution for the disproportionately young audience of the New Republic—as two-thirds of the white population were under twenty-four, according to Cathy N. Davidson in Revolution and the Word—and demonstrate a keen anxiety over forgetting the stories of the Revolution and the ideas embodied in these stories of “everyday Americans.” To close the ever-growing space between the Revolutionary past and the present, newspapers also published primary documents so their young audience could see, and therefore experience, the Revolution unfolding as it had to an earlier generation. While the press nearly deified George Washington as an exemplar of American character, Hume reminds the reader that the print media initially demonized all opponents to the Revolution, including Native Americans and runaway slaves, through largely fictive incendiary accounts posturing as fact. The press also used Revolution as a touchstone to shape the understanding of international incidents in Europe and Asia and offered it as a vantage point for the nineteenth-century reader.
Hume uses chapter three, “The Nation’s First Washington,” to highlight both the resonance of the Revolution in Wilkes County, located in her adopted state of Georgia, and the influence of the media in the town’s regional and national recognition. Spurred by the narrow victory won at nearby Kettle Creek, the town of Fort Heard, Georgia assumed the name of the...