- History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s by M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska
In History Comes Alive, M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska argues that during the 1970s, Americans changed the ways in which they engaged with the past. At times a direct response to transformative social and political moments, and at other times a result of ongoing transitions in museum methods or entertainment genres, she explores the impact of a wide variety of influential and changing public history practices. [End Page 205] Compelling and provocative in her selection and interrogation of these sites, Rymsza-Pawlowska has produced a welcome book on a critical period that continues to impact not just the work of public historians, but the manner by which Americans have since related to the past.
The book explores several modes of historical production that did not typically originate in the 1970s, but that took on additional degrees of significance in that moment. The modes include television, federal and grassroots commemorations (as well as protests) of the bicentennial, historic preservation efforts, national and living history museums, and reenactments. Although a number of scholars have commented on the decade's impact on these individual modes, Rymsza-Pawlowska effectively combines this scholarship and builds upon it, arguing that through the collective assessment of this wide breadth of historical exercises and sites, we can see the decade fomenting a critical turn in public historical practice. "In this moment," she writes, "popular and public history across multiple fields shifted from instructive, reflective, or visual efforts to represent the past to ones that encouraged emotional, as opposed to informational, production of historical knowledge. History came alive: it moved from the past into the present. It became as much about feeling as about thinking, about being inside the past instead of looking upon it" (5). This argument sets the stage for the chapters that follow. Differentiated by mode of historical engagement, each chapter juxtaposes practices before and during the 1970s in order to reveal the decade's significant interventions in how Americans encounter the past.
History Comes Alive begins with a survey of television programs from the 1950s through the 1970s. Rymsza-Pawlowska argues that television network programming in the 1950s and 1960s was for the most part invested in progress and modernity. When rare programs such as CBS's You Are There explored historical moments, or when episodes of popular shows such as The Twilight Zone or Star Trek were set in the past, they each ultimately reinforced the notion that the progress and modernity of the present day and future is superior to the weird, dangerous, and distant past. The 1970s, in contrast, marked "the moment at which, in the midst of social, political, and economic turmoil, this investment began to weaken as Americans stopped envisioning and anticipating the future and began looking toward the past" (13). This took place most obviously in nostalgia comedies like Happy Days or dramas like Little House on the Prairie, where audiences were invited to find common ground and relate to the emotional lives of the shows' protagonists, rather than view the past through a didactic lens. The television genre that truly arrived during this period, however, was the mini-series. Rymsza-Pawlows-ka's study of Roots as a nationally gripping phenomenon is particularly compelling and reveals the moment when television programming rose to serve as one of the most influential arbiters of historical imagining.
Each of the following chapters revolves at least in part around the public's engagement with the American bicentennial. Early federal efforts began with the 1966 bill for the formation of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission [End Page 206] (ARBC). The ARBC was originally purposed with creating in quite conventional terms a nationally coordinated celebration of America's place in the world, rooted in the success of the Revolution and the conviction that all Americans had benefited from its promise. However, this sentiment by...