Cover image for Who owns history? : rethinking the past in a changing world
Who owns history? : rethinking the past in a changing world
Foner, Eric, 1943-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hill and Wang, [2002]

Physical Description:
xix, 233 pages ; 22 cm
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E175.9 .F66 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A thought-provoking new book from one of America's finest historians "History," wrote James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."Rarely has Baldwin's insight been more forcefully confirmed than during the past few decades. History has become a matter of public controversy, as Americans clash over such things as museum presentations, the flying of the Confederate flag, or reparations for slavery. So whose history is being written? Who owns it?In W ho Owns History? , Eric Foner proposes his answer to these and other questions about the historian's relationship to the world of the past and future. He reconsiders his own earlier ideas and those of the pathbreaking Richard Hofstadter. He also examines international changes during the past two decades - globalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa - and their effects on historical consciousness. He concludes with considerations of the enduring, but often misunderstood, legacies of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. This is a provocative, even controversial, study of the reasons we care about history - or should.

Author Notes

Eric Foner is the preeminent historian of his generation. His books have won the top awards in the profession, and he has been president of both major history organizations, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. He is the author of Give Me Liberty!, which displays all of his trademark strengths as a scholar, teacher, and writer. A specialist on the Civil War/Reconstruction period, he regularly teaches the nineteenth-century survey at Columbia University, where he is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History. In 2011, Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize. His Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad is a 2015 New York Times bestseller.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this series of addresses and essays, many in print for the first time, one of America's preeminent historians does his profession proud. After discussing his own life history beginning with a New York leftist Jewish childhood, during which his family "discuss[ed] the intricacies of international relations and domestic politics over the dinner table" Foner (The Story of American Freedom), a professor at Columbia University, writes with erudition and clarity on a variety of historical subjects. At his best, he critically assesses the way American history and historians intersect. In an address he gave last year as president of the American Historical Association, he exhorted his colleagues to examine American history in an international context: "In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world." His critique of Ken Burns's Civil War documentary shows how the much-acclaimed series by depicting the war as a fight between Northern and Southern whites and by essentially excluding the Reconstruction, one of Foner's own specialties exhibits some of the same failings that have plagued historians of the era (which Foner calls "the most controversial and misunderstood era in our nation's history"). Other strong essays include a lecture on blacks and the U.S. Constitution and an analysis of the way historians have looked at socialism in the United States. The essays on history in South Africa and Russia, while thought-provoking, feel a bit dated (they were written in the mid-1990s). But as whole, these writings help to debunk the idea that history is irrelevant in the 21st century. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

At the outset, Foner (Columbia Univ.) reminds readers that past, present, and future are interconnected. Thus, tensions arise when the past tends to shape the present, but the conditions of the present and visions of the future contradict the counsels of the past. In the widest sense, these nine essays published since 1990 are case studies for such tensions, which Foner views as struggles over who did or should own history. For him, the properly established past is the one from which none of the groups so far forced into silence will be absent. This theme of inclusion informs his reflections on the proper memory of the Civil War and its more recent aftermath (constitutional issues and popular recollection). The discussion of the failure of socialism suggests a wrong (Marxist) ownership of past US reform movements. Other essays reach into two areas that experienced a sharp break in the ownership of the past: the former Soviet Union and South Africa. In both cases, the issue of finding a constructive past has been difficult. Well written and informative. All levels and collections. E. A. Breisach emeritus, Western Michigan University

Booklist Review

A prominent Reconstruction historian, Foner is much in demand for speaking at conferences and ceremonies and writing introductions to books. This volume collects various essays he has produced for such occasions. Naturally, given his expertise, most of the essays address American slavery and its legacy, and they echo the prime theme of this collection: how the public perceives and understands history in general. That a popular preference exists for exalting the history of one's country is undeniable, as Foner notes in various recent controversies related to American history as well as among «Soviets» circa 1990, when they were recovering their nationalities and debating their histories. Elsewhere, Foner pays homage to his mentor, famed historian Richard Hofstadter; reviews his own career; revisits the hoary topic of the lack of Euro-style socialism in America; castigates Ken Burns' Civil War; and blasts conservative jurists who subscribe to «original intent.» Valuable insight into a premier historian's passions and viewpoint. Gilbert Taylor.

Library Journal Review

Each individual has a vested interest in knowing the past because the past is in everyone. However, "everyone and no one" owns the past and "the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery," states Foner (history, Columbia Univ.), author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution and other respected titles on American history. In nine readable essays written between 1983 and 2001 and grouped in three sections "The Politics of History and Historians," "Rethinking History in a Changing World," and "The Enduring Civil War" Foner argues that the historian has a relationship with his or her own world. His style is personable and straightforward, and he effectively presses home his assumptions. From a historian's perspective, though, he adds nothing new; the question "Who owns history?" has been around in various guises for 30 years, and Foner's variation simply restates the theme that academics must be community-oriented if only to stay in touch with the public. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be, "Who determines which history is `anointed' as the `true' history?" Nevertheless, Foner is a respected historian, and he ably articulates a viewpoint shared by many of his colleagues. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One MY LIFE AS A HISTORIAN In 1996, the department of history at Fordham University invited a group of American historians whose work had focused on the history of race in the United States to speak about the influences that had shaped our choices of career and subject matter. * * * Historians, by and large, are not noted for introspection. Our calling requires us to analyze past events, but we rarely turn our interpretive talents upon ourselves. I welcome the opportunity to reflect publicly about how and why I became a historian, how my approach to the study of history has changed over time, and how the concerns of the present have helped to shape the questions I ask about the past.     Born in New York City in 1943, I was raised in Long Beach, Long Island, to all outward appearances a typical child of America's postwar suburban boom. In one respect, however, my upbringing was unusual, although emblematic nonetheless of one aspect of the American experience. Shortly before I was born, my father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S. Foner, both historians at City College in New York, were among some sixty faculty members dismissed from teaching positions at the City University after informers named them as members of the Communist party at hearings of the state legislature's notorious Rapp-Coudert Committee, a precursor of McCarthyism. A few years later, my mother was forced to resign from her job as a high school art teacher. During my childhood and for many years afterward, my parents were blacklisted and unable to teach. Unlike most of my generation, I did not have to wait until the upheavals of the 1960s to discover the yawning gap that separated America's professed ideals and its self-confident claim to be a land of liberty from its social and political reality. My friend Gabor S. Boritt, who grew up in communist Hungary and now directs the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, once remarked to me, "I was raised in a country where we understood that most of what the government says is untrue." "That's funny," I replied, "I grew up in the same country."     Given the profession of my father and uncle, it seems in retrospect inevitable that I would become a historian. But, as I frequently tell my students, events are inevitable only after they happen. As a youth I wanted to be an astronomer, and my first published book was entitled The Solar System . To be sure, "published" is a bit of an exaggeration. The book, with one chapter on each planet, was dictated by me, typed by my mother, and illustrated by a family friend. It was not based on archival research. But I was only seven years old at the time.     My greatest joy as a youth was gazing through a telescope on spring nights, and my idea of athletic prowess was serving on the Long Beach High School math team (we finished second in Long Island one year). But I also imbibed a lively interest in both history and current events. Historical and political concerns suffused our household. Every child thinks his upbringing is entirely normal. Only gradually did I realize that other families did not discuss the intricacies of international relations and domestic politics over the dinner table, or follow election returns in France, India, and Guatemala as avidly as those in the United States.     What was truly distinctive about my family's view of both American history and the world around us, however, was our preoccupation with the past and present condition of our black fellow countrymen. As suburbs go, Long Beach was a liberal community, whose predominantly Jewish residents regularly voted Democratic. But on issues relating to race, the prevailing sentiment was indifference. Our idyllic town had its own small ghetto, home to black domestic servants, but no one except my parents and a few like-minded friends seemed aware of its existence, or wondered why housing there was so inferior to that enjoyed by whites. In school, we did commemorate Negro History Week, mostly with lessons about George Washington Carver and his amazing feats with peanuts. But our history texts were typical of the time: slavery, they taught, was a regrettable but not particularly oppressive institution, Reconstruction a terrible mistake, and blacks played no discernible role whatever in the rest of American history. I well recall my mother (to my embarrassment) striding into school to complain about the illustrations of happy slaves playing banjos in our primary school history text. The principal could not understand her unhappiness. "What difference does it make," he asked, "what we teach them about slavery?"     In my home, however, it made a great deal of difference. As the work of Mark Naison and other scholars has shown, in the 1930s the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program. Communist-oriented historians like Herbert Aptheker and my uncle Philip Foner, along with black scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, had begun the process of challenging prevailing stereotypes about black history. At home, I learned ideas that today are taken for granted but then were virtually unknown outside black and left-wing circles: slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War and emancipation is greatest accomplishment; Reconstruction was a tragedy not because it was attempted but because it failed; and the condition of blacks was the nation's foremost domestic problem. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were friends of my family, Frederick Douglass (whom my uncle had rescued from historical oblivion by publishing a four-volume collection of his magnificent writings and speeches) a household name. In my home, we followed with a growing sense of excitement the unfolding of the civil rights movement, and it was assumed that my younger brother and I would participate in it. Tom went on to take part in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. I attended not only the March on Washington of 1963 but also the less well-known march of 1957, and in 1960 I spent a great deal of time picketing Woolworth stores in New York in support of the Southern sit-ins. By then, I was a freshman at Columbia College, where during my undergraduate years I became the first president of ACTION , a student political party that, along with sponsoring folk music concerts, issued newsletters on civil rights and persuaded the off-campus housing registry to drop listings from landlords who would not sign a nondiscrimination pledge.     I entered Columbia fully intending to major in astronomy. By the end of my sophomore year, my interest--or perhaps my talent--in science had waned considerably Then, in my junior year, I somehow persuaded James P. Shenton to allow me to enroll in his senior seminar on the Civil War period. By the end of the year, I was not only a history major but had developed what has become a lifelong passion for that era.     Looking back over my career, I realize that I learned from two great teachers what it is to be a historian. The first was my father. Deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer on history and current affairs. Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past--how the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, how the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of black and white abolitionists, and how in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century could be found the antecedents of American intervention in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs--Tom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W.E.B. Du Bois--were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes toward the past. The second great teacher was Jim Shenton, legendary at Columbia for his dramatic lecturing style and the personal interest he took in his students--down to introducing us to the city's culinary attractions. From Shenton, I learned that successful teaching rests both on a genuine and selfless concern for students and on the ability to convey to them a love of history.     My seminar paper that year was a study of the Free Soil party of 1848, a justifiably obscure topic that led to my first excursion into archival research, in my senior thesis, supervised by Richard Hofstadter. The fact that the civil rights movement was then reaching its crescendo powerfully affected my choice of subject: the racial attitudes of those who opposed the expansion of slavery Just two years earlier, Leon Litwack had stunned the historical profession with his demonstration, in North of Slavery , that racism was every bit as pervasive in the antebellum North as in the slave South. My research built on his insight, to demonstrate that many Free Soilers opposed the expansion of slavery in order to keep blacks, free or slave, from competing with "free white labor."     My senior thesis became the basis of my first two published articles, which appeared in 1965. More importantly, it introduced me to Hofstadter, the premier historian of his generation, who would soon be supervising my dissertation. One day Hofstadter related to me how he had obtained his first full-time teaching position when a job opened in 1941 at the downtown branch of City College because of the dismissal of a victim of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Students initially boycotted Hofstadter's lectures as a show of support for his purged predecessor, but eventually they returned to the classroom. Ironically, Hofstadter's first job resulted from the flourishing of the kind of political paranoia that he would later lament in his historical writings. Even more ironically, the victim of political blacklisting whom Hofstadter replaced was my father.     Whatever thoughts he harbored about this twist of fate, Hofstadter played brilliantly the role of intellectual mentor so crucial to any student's career. His books directed me toward the subjects that have defined much of my own writing--the history of political ideologies and the interconnections between social development and political culture. Years later I learned that it was thanks to Hofstadter that on graduating from college, I was awarded a Kellett Fellowship to study at Oriel College, Oxford. The tutorial system, in which the student prepares a paper each week and reads it aloud to the tutor, gave me invaluable training in quick, clear expository writing. Each week I was forced to master a subject about which I previously knew nothing--the reasons for the decline of the medieval wool trade, for example--and to present my ideas in a coherent fashion. I probably owe it to my years at Oxford that writer's block has never been one of my problems. At the end of my stay, I decided to return to Columbia to pursue a doctorate in American history. My decision was not greeted with universal enthusiasm. When I told my tutor, W. A. Pantin, a specialist on the English church in the fourteenth century, that I wanted to devote my career to the American past, he replied: "In other words, you have ceased to study history."     I returned to Columbia in 1965. While I was away, the sixties had happened. Students now wore long hair and colorful attire and spent much of their time imbibing substances of questionable legality. Vietnam had replaced race as the predominant issue on campus; it would soon become the catalyst for a full-fledged generational rebellion. Like so many others, I threw myself into the antiwar movement, but intellectually I remained preoccupied with issues surrounding slavery and race, a preoccupation that deepened as America's cities burned between 1965 and 1968, the civil rights movement evaporated, and it became clear that racism was far more deeply entrenched in American life than we had imagined a few short years before.     Somehow, while participating in events from antiwar marches to the Columbia student rebellion of 1968, I managed to write my dissertation, which became the basis of my first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men . A study of the ideology of the Republican party before the Civil War, the dissertation grew out of my old interest in free soilism. Among my aims was to outline Republicans' complex attitudes toward blacks, but I was deeply impressed by a comment by Winthrop Jordan at a conference I attended in 1966: "To understand people's attitudes about race, you have to understand their attitudes about everything." Jordan's remark helped me conceptualize my theme as a study of ideology--the coherent worldview that brought together reinforcing attitudes about labor, economic growth, westward expansion, and race relations, and which inspired Republicans to oppose slavery's expansion and the growth of Southern political power. Published in 1970, my book became part of a trend whereby American historians rediscovered the value of the concept of ideology. Events of the time strongly influenced this development. In a society engulfed by social crisis, it no longer seemed plausible to argue, with 1950s "consensus" historians, that Americans had never disagreed profoundly over social and political issues.     To one looking back from the vantage point of thirty years, Free Soil seems a curiously old-fashioned book. Written, as it were, on the threshold separating two generations of historical scholarship, it lacked the benefit of the "new histories" that have matured since its publication in 1970 and that have focused historians' attention on the experiences of ordinary men and women rather than political leaders. History education at Columbia in those days resolutely favored the political and intellectual. But when I returned to England for the 1972-73 academic year to pursue work for my next project, a history of American radicalism, I encountered the new social and labor history. My historical writing would never be the same. Today, when we take for granted that history must include the experience of previously neglected groups--blacks, women, laborers, and others--it is difficult to recapture the sense of intellectual excitement produced by the works of E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and other British practitioners of "history from below." Thanks to what came to be called the "new social history," which they inspired, we today have a far more complex and nuanced portrait of the American past, in all its diversity and contentiousness.     Of course, the inclusion of these diverse experiences in teaching and writing is not without its difficulties, as I had already discovered. In 1969, I was offered a job as an instructor in history at Columbia. As the department's junior member, I soon found myself representing history on doctoral dissertations from other departments, with fascinating subjects like "Tree Imagery in Emerson" and "The Belgian Press and the Boer War." But the main reason I was hired was to teach Columbia's first course in African-American history. My qualifications lay in a course on the subject that I had offered in Double Discovery, a summer program for minority high school students, and my writings on free soil and race. Inevitably and understandably, many of Columbia's black students felt that the first such course in the College's two-hundred-year history ought to be offered by a black scholar. But I was eager to teach the course and insisted--as I continue to believe--that teaching and writing in black history should be held to the same standards as in any other academic discipline. The race of the instructor is not among them. (Continues...) Excerpted from WHO OWNS HISTORY? by Eric Foner. Copyright © 2002 by Eric Foner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Part I The Politics of History and Historians
1. My Life as a Historianp. 3
2. The Education of Richard Hofstadterp. 25
Part II Rethinking History in a Changing World
3. American Freedom in a Global Agep. 49
4. The Russians Write a New Historyp. 75
5. "We Must Forget the Past": History in the New South Africap. 88
6. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?p. 110
Part III The Enduring Civil War
7. Who Is an American?p. 149
8. Blacks and the U.S. Constitutionp. 167
9. Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunionp. 189
Notesp. 205
Indexp. 221