Cover image for The mystic chords of memory : the transformation of tradition in American culture
The mystic chords of memory : the transformation of tradition in American culture
Kammen, Michael G.
Personal Author:
First Vintage Books edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Vintage Books, 1993.

Physical Description:
viii, 864 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
General Note:
Originally published: New York : Knopf, 1991.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E169.1 .K294 1991C Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Mystic Chords of Memory

"Illustrated with hundreds of well-chosen anecdotes and minute observations . . . Kammen is a demon researcher who seems to have mined his nuggets from the entire corpus of American cultural history. . . . Insightful and sardonic."-- Washington Post Book World

In this groundbreaking, panoramic work of American cultural history, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Machine That Would Go of Itself examines a central paradox of our national identity. How did "the land of the future" acquire a past? And to what extent has our collective memory of that past--as embodied in our traditions--been distorted, or even manufactured? Ranging from John Adams to Ronald Reagan, from the origins of Independence Day celebrations to the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War Memorial, from the Daughters of the American Revolution to immigrant associations, and filled with incisive analyses of such phenonema as Americana and its collectors, "historic" villages and Disneyland, Mystic Chords of Memory is a brilliant, immensely readable, and enormously important book.

"Fascinating . . . a subtle and teeming narrative . . . masterly."-- Time

"This is a big, ambitious book, and Kammen pulls it off admirably. . . . [He] brings a prodigious mind and much scholarly rigor to his task. . . . An important book--and a revealing look at how Americans look at themselves."-- Milwaukee Journal

Author Notes

Michael Gedaliah Kammen was born in Rochester, New York on October 25, 1936. He received a bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University and master's and doctoral degrees in history from Harvard University. He was a professor of American history and culture at Cornell University since 1965. He wrote numerous books including A Season of Youth, A Machine That Would Go of Itself, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, Visual Shock, and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials. He received the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for history for People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization. He died on November 29, 2013 at the age of 77.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

When and how does a young country lay claim to its past? To answer this question, Kammen identifies some of the fundamental tensions in the American character: tradition versus progress, regionalism versus nationalism, democracy versus professionalism, private initiative versus public responsibility. A distinguished historian, Kammen shows that the needs of the present have governed (often distorted) what Americans remember of their past. In many cases, different groups of Americans have celebrated divergent versions of the past. Yet as the pace of modern culture has quickened, cravings for ties to the past have grown more insistent. Kammen critically surveys the contemporary "tradition industry"--museums, reenactments, restorations, genealogy, scholarship, drama--that caters to this appetite. Upon uncovering instances of chauvinism and commercialism, the author typically responds with wit, occasionally with wrath. The scope of the book reflects not only long research but also broad sympathies. Not all readers will agree that the federal government must serve as custodian of the collective memory, but Kammen's work powerfully illustrates the need to remember and the temptation to forget. ~--Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1942, during the intermission in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast performance, Walt Disney commented that "Dopey is as well qualified as I am to discuss culture in America," adding that even the word "culture" had "an un-American connotation... as if it thought it was better than the next fellow." In Kammen's view, Disney's rejection of the elite connotations of "culture" is emblematic of conflicted U.S. attitudesÄsince the formation of the Republic, and particularly in this centuryÄtoward art, leisure, entertainment and pleasure. Kammen, a professor of American history and culture at Cornell, and the winner of a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for People of Paradox, attempts to chart how Americans have defined and controlled cultureÄby inventing such categories as low-, middle- and highbrow, by funding and de-funding the National Endowment for the ArtsÄas well as how advertising, mall culture and economic fluctuations affect attitudes about culture. Drawing on the work of such theorists as Raymond Williams, Dwight McDonald and Herbert Marcuse, and on such varied examples as The Simpsons, jigsaw puzzles, Walter Winchell's gossip columns, the poetry of Walt Whitman, Andy Warhol's art and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Kammen explores how our endless cultural skirmishes not only reflect but also change how we view citizenship and democracy. Though Kammen's writing is clear and his insights illuminating and provocative, his arguments are dense and often purely theoretical, and may be hard going for uninitiated readers. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Within the last ten years, many American historians have discovered the importance of collective ``memory'' in shaping their nation. In some respects following the lead of influential historians from other nations, they now try to understand the forces that shaped the ways in which Americans remember and use their past and what significant events altered their consciousness of history. Long before recent scholars began decrying the dominance of obscure monographs and calling for greater convergence of ideas in historical studies, Kammen had demonstrated that synthesis could be accomplished without sacrificing richness of detail and divergent interpretations. Moreover, he showed that historians could communicate with one another and a wider audience at the same time. This book, part of Kammen's multivolume rethinking of American history, presents his view of the growing dependence on and debate over collective memory as a historical force during four periods since 1870. With great skill he distinguishes the ways Americans adapted their views of the past to fit the needs of their present circumstances. He weaves a command of formal cultural history with a thorough understanding of popular culture into an astonishingly wonderful book that enlightens not only the history of the past century and a quarter but also the present.-- Charles K. Piehl, Mankato State Univ., Minn. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Kammen (Cornell) undertakes a study of no less than the historical consciousness of American society itself. Dividing his subject into four chronological periods (before 1870; 1870 to 1915; 1915 to 1945; 1945 to 1990), Kammen examines the way in which the American people developed a sense of the past, how this past acquired symbolic meanings and regional variations, and how perceptions and uses of this past changed over time. Kammen scrutinizes manifestations of historical consciousness in such phenomena as commemorative holidays and celebrations, monuments and museums, historic buildings and sites, art and artifacts, antiques and advertising, periodicals, and Americana. The scope of this work, its depth of analysis, and its resulting insights and perspectives constitute a singular contribution to the American tradition preserved and clarified. No comparable study but complements Kammen's previous A Season of Youth (CH, Apr'79), A Machine That Would Go of Itself (CH, Feb'87), and Selvages & Biases (1989). Full endnotes, detailed index, and black-and-white illustrations. College, university, and public libraries.-M. L. Dolan, Northern Michigan University