Memory  /  Q&A

Interpretations of the Past

How the study of historical memory created a new reckoning with the creation of “American history."

MP: But I think a lot of people think that history is just one thing: that there’s a story that’s simply true. We’ve also seen, recently, how history and memory can be manipulated. What contributes to that malleability?

MDH: I have a line in the book where I say that memory lives in the shadow cast by history. History is, in one definition of the word, everything that’s happened in the past. It’s everything that’s come before. That casts a large shadow. But when historians try to recover the past, there’s a process of selection that goes on. What do you include? What do you leave out? Because you can’t include everything. 

History is not a science. In some sense, it’s almost an art, to try to recover something concrete from this mass of ambiguity. And the past is ambiguous until historians make some sense of it. And because of that, there’s a lot of room in that shadow for memory to do its work. 

Part of the reason the past is malleable is because there are many ways that you can tell [it]. For example, [in] the story of the Revolution, each [history] could look like an entirely different event. That’s where you start to hear people talk about revisionist history. It’s really an epithet, especially when conservatives use that term. 

The way my book tries to address that kind of thinking is to show that the Revolutionary generation that many conservatives idolize were the biggest historical revisionists out there. They totally discarded a history that they had believed was their own for hundreds of years and said, “Well, we’re going to throw that out and make it up as we go along.” One of the broad points of the book is that historical revisionism, or changing how you think about the past, was a fundamental part of the process of the Revolution and its cultural process. That’s a dynamic that continues.

What I’m finding now, especially in my current book project, is that every generation of Americans has defined the Revolution to suit their ideologies, sensibilities, and mores. Every generation has done that. The specific narrative that many Americans, especially conservatives, think of as the narrative, is actually a product of the Cold War. But even though it might have been new, the way they learned it was that this was always the case: “This is how Americans have always thought about the Revolution,” when in reality, it’s actually quite new.

The idea that people have never thought about the revolution differently is not intuitive for most readers. Part of that is because the memory of the Revolution was part of Cold War propaganda—and think about how effective Cold War propaganda was! Some of it outlasted communism and the Cold War itself. It’s a reminder of how powerful historical memory can be, especially when you learn it young.