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21 1 The His­ tory Book Club Of­ fers the Past as an “Image of Our­ selves” In the short span of one life­ time, the per­ sonal con­ tri­ bu­ tion of the in­ di­ vid­ ual ­ scholar to the great and grow­ ing ­ stream of knowl­ edge can’t be more than a tiny pail­ ful. But if he could in­ spire—or pro­ voke—other schol­ ars to pour in their pail­ fuls too, well, then he could feel that he had ­ really done his job. And this job of mak­ ing sense of his­ tory is one of the cry­ ing needs of our day—I beg of you, be­ lieve me. Ar­ nold J. Toyn­ bee, in The Pat­ tern of the Past: Can We De­ ter­ mine It?, by ­ Pieter Geyl, Ar­ nold J. Toyn­ bee, and Pit­ i­ rum A. Sor­ o­ kin The fu­ ture is just a pool that ideol­ o­ gies go ­ a-fishing in. It is only by the most vig­ or­ ous ef­ fort that we can make of the past any­ thing but a sim­ i­ lar fish­ ing pool. Ber­ nard De­ Voto, “Notes on the ­ American Way” The mo­ ment ­ seemed pro­ pi­ tious. In 1947 his­ to­ rian Ber­ nard De­ Voto ­ sensed that there was an awak­ en­ ing of a “grow­ ing na­ tional con­ scious­ ness about the ­ American past. Not only read­ ers but writ­ ers are turn­ ing to it in in­ creas­ ing num­ bers,” which meant a “vast pro­ duc­ tion of books about our past.”1 A con­ tem­ po­ rary re­ ferred to a post­ war “boom in ­ American his­ tory.”2 To­ gether with 22 E The Past as an “Image of Ourselves” the new abun­ dance arose the ques­ tion of how inter­ ested ­ Americans could fig­ ure out which his­ to­ ries ­ should be read, and which could be ig­ nored. Once they de­ cided that his­ tory might have some­ thing im­ por­ tant to say, to them and to their age, where ­ should they begin? If it were pos­ sible for con­ cerned his­ to­ rians to guide the gen­ eral pub­ lic, De­ Voto ­ thought, per­ haps his­ tory might re­ al­ ize its po­ ten­ tial as a ­ source of knowl­ edge that would help to ­ create an in­ formed cit­ i­ zenry, some­ thing many ­ Americans be­ lieved was vital as the na­ tion took on­ greater glo­ bal re­ spon­ sibil­ ities. Per­ haps read­ ers in every part of the coun­ try, of var­ i­ ous back­ grounds and ed­ u­ ca­ tion lev­ els, could learn from the same ed­ u­ ca­ tive texts, in turn lead­ ing to­ ward a ­ broadly ­ shared and so­ phis­ ti­ cated con­ scious­ ness of the past. The prom­ ise of the His­ tory Book Club (HBC) was that it would allow a se­ lect group of his­ to­ rians, ac­ tively en­ gaged in con­ tem­ po­ rary af­ fairs, to show thou­ sands of other ­ Americans how the past, as they knew it, in­ formed the ­ present. The HBC ad­ ver­ tised the prom­ ise of his­ tor­ i­ cal an­ swers to these ques­ tions: “How did we get this way? What are we? And can our way of liv­ ing sur­ vive?”3 For a while, the club op­ er­ ated along these lines: like a ­ purpose-driven­ course in di­ rected read­ ings ­ rather than a dis­ count book­ seller. But a ten­ sion ex­ isted ­ between ed­ u­ ca­ tion and ­ profit, and the char­ ter group of ­ historian-editors­ quickly con­ cluded that, at the HBC, the ­ profit mo­ tive super­ seded their goals for his­ tory ed­ u­ ca­ tion. The first year of the ­ club’s ex­ is­ tence thus ­ stands sep­ ar­ ate from its later years when a new co­ hort took over the du­ ties but not the at­ ti­ tude or ob­ jec­ tives of ed­ i­ tor Ber­ nard De­ Voto and his ­ like-minded col­ leagues. For sev­ eral years the club con­ tin­ ued to func­ tion as De­ Voto hoped it would, but by the end of the 1950s it lost its co­ her­ ent phi­ lo­ so­ phy. The se­ lec­ tive his­ tory, meant to con­ vey some spe­ cific rel­ e­ vance to the con­ tem­ po...


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