Popular Uses of History in the United States: Individuals in History

David Thelen, May 2000

Editor's note: In the following essay, Thelen extrapolates on the data from the survey he conducted with Roy Rosenzweig (see Rosenzweig's article).

The fascinating statistical averages whetted our eagerness to listen to individuals' replies to open-ended questions. We were surprised by how much people simply wanted to talk about their uses of the past in reply to a telephone call from a stranger—an average of 20 minutes when they could have answered the open-ended questions in 5 or 6 minutes and ended the phone call sooner. But we were even more puzzled by many things they said. Indeed, as I tried to recognize, let alone understand, how respondents told us they were using the past, I felt that I was pushing hard against the limits of my training and experience as a professional historian. In fact, I had to unlearn some of what I had been taught as a professional and pay more attention to what I had experienced as a person. After listening to 1,453 randomly selected Americans talk about their uses of the past, I have concluded that the self-enclosing thrust of professionalization retards our engagement with nonprofessionals by making it harder for us to recognize which professional practices resemble "common," "local," or "everyday" knowledge and perspective, and which have evolved into jargon that makes sense only to other professionals. Respondents wanted to get close to an experience from the past, to its ambiguities, and thus wholeheartedly shared professionals' preference for primary over secondary sources, for example. But they seemed indifferent to whether an interpretation was "original" or "new" or not, perhaps the major criterion professionals employ in evaluating submissions to scholarly journals.

The greatest challenge in our findings to professional practice is to pay more attention to individuals both as interpreters of and actors in the past. This does not come naturally to historians. Many historians assume that the real actors, the real initiators of change, the proper place to begin, are cultures, groups, institutions, and nations or large events like economic depression and world war. Individuals, we often assume, adapt to and reflect initiatives from these larger developments. By contrast, many respondents began their uses of the past in active individual uses like the need to establish identity when they were young, to leave a legacy for those who come after when they were old, to find and hold on to other people, and to make a difference in their lives and those of others. While many did indeed talk about changes in their larger circumstances, they often used the past most actively to meet needs they saw as both unique and "human" in uses that transcended time and place and larger social categories.

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, as well as William Shakespeare, helped me to understand how our respondents were challenging me to see history as a tension between large events and circumstances that shape the range within which people think and act, on the one hand, and the tremendously active and varied ways that individuals tried to meet intimate needs, on the other. Time and place do shape history, but so do individuals and by different rhythms or perspectives, as artists, novelists, and playwrights have long depicted. In West Side Story's exploration of ethnic conflict between Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers in the 1950s, the two ethnic groups create gangs that retain the loyalty of individual members by warning them of the dangers in straying from the group. They warn that "a boy like that [from a rival ethnic group] will kill your brother" in the same way that the Montagues and Capulets had tried centuries earlier in Verona to keep individuals from rival families apart. But Tony and Maria, like Romeo and Juliet, defy circumstance and tradition. They dream that their love could inspire people from rival groups to glimpse a common humanity grounded in a "time and place" that has elicited tears of human recognition across centuries even though it is not grounded in the kind of "time and place" Clio easily recognizes:

There's a place for us.
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand, and we're half way there.
Hold my hand, and I'll take you there.

The challenge posed by a focus on the perspectives of individuals begins in the fact that some people go along while others resist contexts and trends that historians use to organize the story of change and continuity. Some respondents described themselves as carried along by a larger thrust of history toward greater tolerance and encouragement for women and members of minority groups, while others saw themselves as frightened by and trying to resist a larger thrust of history toward more crime and materialism. Some individual slaves ran away and others did not. Some individual white Methodists assisted them and others did not. The deeper challenge centers on why and how we study change and continuity at all. Seeing themselves as agents who could change and be changed by experiences, using the past to meet personal needs and sustain relationships, many respondents assembled isolated experiences into narratives or trajectories. From these narratives they could project what might happen next, set priorities, and try to take responsibility for the future course of events. The rhythms of family life, often the responsibility parents felt to prepare their children for what lay ahead, inspired the narratives they formed to explain change and continuity in the larger world.

A Mexican American school district employee from South Texas was still trying to interpret an experience that had happened 18 years earlier. "When we Mexican Americans were in school, we had our own school on the other side of the tracks. We weren't allowed to go swimming in the town swimming pool. I could go on and on with those kinds of things," she began. But times changed. "I really thought discrimination was all over in 1976." But that year something shook her faith in her capacity to interpret history. "My son was a senior in high school, and he asked a girl to the prom, and her parents would not let her go with him because he was Mexican American." This rejection was even more puzzling because her son did not look like the kind of person Anglos discriminated against: "My son is blond-haired, blue-eyed." The prom rejection "upset me very much," she told our interviewer. "It just kind of brought it all back, and told me hey, it's not over, discrimination is not over. It's still around. It's very subtle."

She was troubled that she had failed to create an accurate narrative about discrimination from observing encounters between Mexican Americans and Anglos in schools, at swimming pools, in their choices of partners for prom dates. But this was no academic exercise. She grieved that by wrongly interpreting the extent of change and continuity, she had failed in one of the basic tasks of parenthood: preparing her children to find and make their way in the larger world. "I had not really said anything to my children because I thought discrimination was over and done with." After all, she reassured herself, until the prom rejection, "my kids have not really experienced the kind of discrimination that I did [as a child]." She didn't want to alarm her children or dampen their dreams. "I didn't want to bring this to their attention." Now, 18 years later, she lamented: "I was naive to think that it didn't exist." The challenge of describing the course of discrimination against Mexican Americans was inseparable from the challenge of preparing children to make their way in the world.

With successful parenthood the stakes of successful historical interpretation, many respondents wanted their children to learn from the past how they might take responsibility for making a better world for themselves and those who came after them. By presenting history as a story of individual struggle, by insisting that blessings from personal wealth to political freedom were the fruits of dedication and hard work by real individuals, respondents described not only a content of history but also a responsibility they wanted users to feel when they engaged history. They wanted younger people to feel responsible for trying to shape the course of events instead of merely accepting their fates as automatic rights or unearned gifts. A New Jersey collection analyst in her 50s worried that "the children of today think that everything was just given to them, that our parents were just given everything they had"; she wanted children to learn from the past "how hard the struggle was for grandparents when they came to this country" and to learn that "education, sharing, and sacrifice within the family are necessary" for survival. The moral for young people was the same in the story of where political freedoms came from. Children "should know how people have struggled for freedom in this country," explained a Maryland floral designer: "We don't want them to think that life is always easy." From understanding how individuals fell into self-destructive behavior to learning how cultures embraced slavery or states engage in war, many respondents believed that history should teach how tragedies might have been avoided and might be prevented in the future. And a 43-year-old woman from Las Vegas likewise saw in history the need in the present, particularly in children, to explore individual responsibility for larger events, particularly for evils. She wanted her son to study the Holocaust so he, at least, would feel the responsibility "to make sure nothing like that ever happens again." The past thus became a vast reservoir for exploring to what extent and under what circumstances and with what support individuals might be able to shape the course of events, whether of alcoholism in themselves or racism in the larger society.

Shifting the starting place from "context" to individuals profoundly shifts the way we understand both and indeed the way we organize the study of history. A 75-year-old retired man from Westfield, New Jersey, reported: "There are two things that have had a profound effect on my life. One was the Great Depression. My father lost his job and I had to go to work to help support the family rather than go to college. The second was the Second World War. I was enlisted in the Marine Corps and served four years and really started my career well behind the people who had not served in the armed forces. I think that it makes you a stronger person from having lived through adversity and having overcome it." While history textbooks ordinarily put these two events in different chapters, the New Jersey man recalled that both events had remarkably similar consequences for him.

In using the past to find moral lessons to live by, the New Jersey man illustrates the persistence of traditional uses of the past that "scientific" and professional history were invented to replace. Indeed, the modern discipline of history freed history from philosophy early in the 19th century, as Leopold von Ranke and other "scientific" historians told the story, with the conviction that people's thoughts and action did not follow universal or timeless patterns but were shaped by time and place. But the New Jersey man's story suggests that many people understand their pasts to shape their lives through lessons that transcend time and place.

By placing individuals at the center both as actors in and users of history, we see the full creativity of popular history making. Many respondents described different ways of using the past—as materials for evaluating where and how individuals might take responsibility for shaping the course of events, or for trying to assess how and in what ways time and place shape the range within which individuals might act. Individuals, after all, experience, interpret, revisit, reinterpret—in short, they remember and forget. Respondents told us that they do these things not in isolation but to meet needs with family members and friends and with larger cultural materials to draw on. Cultures and institutions doubtless have resources and interests which their leaders embed in narratives across time, but they do not actively use the past. While we can recognize many of the delights and agonies people experienced in the past, we also understand that the ways individuals envision themselves—their bodies and souls, their minds and psyches, their rights and responsibilities—are clearly shaped in part by the times and places they inhabit. By focusing on the tension between individual action and constraints of time and place we might return to the founding places of modern history in order to examine, not assume, just how much time and place shape the range within which people think and act. And in so doing, we would make our subject more recognizable and useable to many of the people we interviewed in this survey.

—David Thelen is a former editor of the Journal of American History and coauthored (with Roy Rosenzweig) Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. He teaches at Indiana University.