- Rescued from Oblivion: Historical Cultures in the Early United States by Alea Henle
Historical societies, Historical culture, Heritage, Artifacts
Alea Henle surveys the tumultuous landscape of historical enterprises in the early U.S. republic in this carefully constructed study of “historical cultures.” Opening with the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791 and the Boston-based organization’s goals for preserving original materials and supporting inquiry into historical topics, Rescued from Oblivion traces out the larger contexts and consequences of institution-building. In its six chapters the book adopts a comparative approach, examining scores of historical societies to discern larger patterns [End Page 488] in their origins, motivations, trajectories, and social effects. This is a welcome vantage that adds profitably to extant literature more focused on single-institution, municipal, or regional historical pursuits (for example, accounts of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, or the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia). The comparative lens also foregrounds the many networks of historically engaged individuals and groups who consulted with one another, competed for acquisitions of notable materials, and attempted to differentiate their goals and remits.
Henle’s work emphasizes the tenuous quality of these early historical enterprises, which took shape from Maine to Georgia to California. Nearly all of them confronted serious challenges while attempting to build and sustain their memberships. They struggled to obtain donations—both documentary and artifactual—to their nascent collections and labored to secure sufficient funding to purchase or rent appropriate meeting and storage spaces. When members did amass collections, fires, floods, mold, vermin, and neglect frequently compromised the holdings’ integrity. Many societies found it challenging to maintain their momentum beyond their founders’ initial enthusiasm. While the institutions that have endured into the twenty-first century may be best known today, Rescued from Oblivion points out the importance of recovering and critically scrutinizing those that failed or dwindled into obsolescence. (Appendix One neatly lays out a chronology of societies’ establishments.) These lesser-known histories underscore the relative weight or lack thereof accorded by local communities to formally institutionalized historical endeavors.
Henle’s methodology draws on the ample though uneven documentary records that many of these institutions created about their own origins and evolution. It productively illuminates the complex crossovers between “private” and “public” domains, and how entrepreneurial historical society leaders sometimes scooped up colonial and state records, particularly in the relative absence of formal governmental structures for preserving and rendering accessible key archives. It also situates the collecting of physical objects—especially objects associated with locally and nationally prominent individuals—as a counterpart to early archival development that eventually spurred the divergence of natural and historical museums from historical societies.
Rescued from Oblivion recognizes at the outset that most of these institutions were envisioned and operated by elite Protestant, Anglo American [End Page 489] men. It critically assesses how members’ identities and political commitments strongly shaped the types of histories that they valued and preserved—or de-legitimized and ignored. The societies’ work closely aligned with emerging commitments in the early republic such as local pride, civic duty, and nationalism, as well as anxieties about the salience of American histories as compared to European ones. The book does not simply critique these exclusionary ideologies and practices. It also productively examines how individuals and groups not represented in these spaces pushed back against their marginalization and advocated for other forms of knowledge-production and preservation. Chapter 6, “‘An Oblivious Society’: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Omission in Historical Collections,” takes up societies’ relative silences about histories of slavery and emancipation and about settler colonialism’s impacts on Native American people and tribal nations. Engaging recent scholarship such as Jean M. O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis, 2010), the chapter critiques historical societies’ efforts to relegate Native people to a distant past (typically under a heading of “antiquities”) rather than recognizing their ongoing presence and sovereignty.
While the book takes historical societies as its interpretive center, it certainly appreciates that...