Heritage, nostalgia, and “popular historymakers”

The readings for Managing History this week: The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzwieg and David Thelen, and Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past by Carolyn Kitch

A few years ago, Carolyn Kitch set out to explore the monuments, museums, heritage areas, historic highways, factory tours, tourist trains, and other sites through which the industrial history of Pennsylvania is commemorated and then wrote a book about it. What does Kitch consider “industrial”? The book primarily deals with sites associated with agriculture, lumbering, coal mining, oil drilling, iron working, railroading, steel production, and factories that produce everything from potato chips to motorcycles with a few mentions of textile mills in the conclusion. It seems to me, however, that the uniting principle of Kitch’s study is that these are sites that are, for the most part, created by and for people who are outside of the academy. Thus the themes of these various places to encounter industrial history are more likely to be concerned with nostalgia, patriotism, and the valor of laborers than historiography.

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The Presence of the Past is the result of a carefully conducted survey of Americans about how they find “connection” with the “past.” I use quotation marks here because Rosenzwieg and Thelen found in their initial question-testing phase that respondents spoke at greater length when prompted to talk about the “past” than when asked about “history” and the idea of “connection” to that past was what animated them. The survey found that for most Americans, the family was the center of historical authority. Surprisingly, however, that family history was not a vector for strong feelings about national concerns or identity markers like class or ethnicity (with a few major exceptions). Rather the most consistent expression of the importance of history outside of the family unit came from black Americans and American Indians, who referred to group consciousness caused by their status as oppressed peoples. The other major trend was that Evangelical Americans (across racial communities) identified their religion as a major factor in their conception of the past.

Yet Rosenzwieg and Thelen found that despite the idea that the public is uninterested and uninformed about history, many of their respondents were actively involved in some sort of historical inquiry(in the words of one of Rosenzwieg and Thelen’s collaborators, being “popular historymakers”), through genealogy, coin collecting, visiting sites of historical significance or myriad other ways.

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I find it difficult, as I flip through the pages of Pennsylvania in Public Memory, to identify too many threads of connection between these places. What do a pretzel factory and the Lincoln Highway have in common? Tourism, perhaps, rooted in a sense of local distinctiveness. When you throw in a coal mining museum that’s open a few hours every month and located in some civic building, what common denominator are you left with? These are all sites that are telling a story or stories of a local, regional, or national past. Some of them are successful in bringing visitors from far away to invigorate the local economy but far more are mostly patronized by locals and out-of-town guests—often family members.

The connections between Kitch’s travelogue and Rosenzwieg and Thelen’s survey are more apparent to me. The roadside interpretive panel and the former steel mill redeveloped into a boutique shopping center are both forms of popular history-making that seek to mark the importance of place. The ride at Hershey Chocolate World is more about commemorating individual entrepreneurship, but it too is staking a claim to relevance. The mine tours convey mining methods but, more importantly, function as a site for remembering and catharsis of the hard work that once was done there and the way of life that has largely disappeared.

While I do not share some of the concerns (politically or culturally) with some of the mine and foundry museums that Kitch described, I was impressed with how some managed to grapple with the environmental concerns and the labor injustices while still taking pride in the industry of the workers and the community. Some of these museums seemed to strike the right balance between sharing authority with community members, providing a tool for local identity, and yet providing specific historical insights as well.

I was most frustrated by the sites that uncritically offered up a nostalgic version of the past. The agritourism that nods to a vague agrarian past, or as Donna Haraway once put it, “seductions to organic wholeness,” carries with it baggage of racism, patriarchy, and general exploitation, yet it is reassuring. The agrarian countryside is not the only route to “the good old days.” Kitch herself observes that “very much railroad heritage today is unmoored from its historical context” (51). I recognize in this vague nostalgic business model that of Amish tourism that Susan Trollinger and others have explored (I reviewed Trollinger’s Selling the Amish recently) and find its conflation with identity-making and history-telling disturbing. I am left wondering: Is this kind of nuance-free nostalgic simulacra is what the American public wants from its history? If so, are we public historians compelled to indulge those comforting (enabling?) impulses? Or to what extent are we compelled to honor shared authority if a community wants to a mythical feel-good past that reinforces oppression today?

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