Nearly half a century ago, when I was a novice TA leading, I led a U.S. history survey discussion section that drew on a trove of primary sources to teach about the decision to drop the first atomic bombs. I invited John Hersey to meet with my students, and for several hours, the wartime journalist and novelist described his interviews with the Hiroshima bombing survivors shortly after the Enola Gay had delivered its payload, leaving between 70,000 (the U.S. military estimate at the time) and 140,000 people (based on later independent estimates) dead.
He recounted what he had been told and saw for himself and recorded in his New Yorker article.
“ … their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.”
“The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.”
I doubt any of those students will ever forget what they heard.
“Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery.”
“Of a hundred and fifty doctors in the city, sixty-five were already dead and most of the rest were wounded. Of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 were dead or too badly hurt to work. In the biggest hospital, that of the Red Cross, only six doctors out of thirty were able to function, and only ten nurses out of more than two hundred.”
Then there were the words that a German Jesuit priest sent to the Vatican:
“The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us an answer to this question?”
Inscribed on the gates of the nearby New Haven cemetery is a phrase from 1 Corinthians 15:52: “The dead shall be raised.” That evening the dead were, however briefly, restored to life.
Steven Spielberg owed the phrase “close encounters of the third kind” to J. Allen Hynek, the director of Ohio State’s McMillin Observatory. A close encounter of the first kind was a visual sighting, which leaves behind no evidence. The second kind involved a physical trace of contact. The third kind consisted of physical interaction.
Engagement with history, too, can take different forms. One can encounter an artful, immersive reconstruction of the past in a historical novel, play or movie. Or one can come across a remnant of the past, a document, an illustration, an artifact or some other piece of evidence. Alternatively, one can interact with an eyewitness, a bystander or an observer. Or one can do academic history: pose questions, conduct research and share one’s findings.
There are few greater challenges than bringing the past to life for students who feel only the faintest connection to what came before them. Students, the late James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, wrote, spell history b*o*r*i*n*g and describe it as irrelevant.
And yet, public interest in history—in historical fiction, historical films and TV shows, biographies, and popular history books—is widespread. More Americans visit history museums, historic homes and historic battlegrounds than attend professional baseball games.
Why? You know the clichés: To escape the present. To immerse ourselves in a different era. To visualize and humanize the past and make it more personal and relatable. To commune with the dead. To honor ancestors. To find inspiration or a sense of pride in past heroes, struggles and achievements.
Certainly, much popular interest reflects little more than nostalgia for a world that never was. Historic dress, language, manners and power plays are gripping sources of entertainment. Think Downton Abbey or Bridgerton. History also offers an epic scale that few fictional accounts can match.
But the underlying reasons for interest in history go deeper. To skewer myths. To debate past choices and decisions. To hold people in the past to account. To understand how our world came to be. To come to terms, in Henry James’s words, with a still-felt past.
There was a time, within living memory, when a number of academic U.S. historians were able to reach a broad educated readership, not by writing about the greatness of the nation’s founders or the Civil War, but through a certain kind of historically informed cultural criticism. Writing jargon-free, engaging prose, scholars like Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote books that shaped the public’s understanding of the nation’s past.
Then, there was also another group of scholars, including John Hope Franklin, Gerda Lerner, C. Vann Woodward, and Howard Zinn, who also reached a broad audience, but who wrote for readers who wanted a more critical perspective on the nation’s past, and sought to understand the lives of those who had been relegated to history’s margins.
In a recent book entitled Popularizing the Past: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America, Nick Witham, who teaches at University College London, tells the story of five historians—Boorstin, Franklin, Hofstadter, Lerner, and Zinn—born between 1914 and 1922 who succeeded in reaching a broad reading public in the years after World War II. Anything but uniform in their perspective, they sold an extraordinary number of books.
Hofstadter critically examined the ideas, the ideologies, and the men (yes, men) who shaped the American political tradition. He viewed Populism and Progressivism skeptically, underscored the paranoia and anti-intellectualism that runs through American history, critiqued the justifications for economic inequality, and highlighted the conflicts and debates that influenced American politics, pitting liberalism versus various forms of conservatism and radicalism.
Boorstin, Hofstadter’s doppelgänger, stressed the importance of influential individuals—explorers, inventors, artists, and political leaders—whose ideas and actions he considered the driving forces in history. He emphasized American exceptionalism, and described Americans as a pragmatic, problem-solving people. In addition to tracing the democratization of knowledge, he traced the development of a popular culture that valued image and celebrity over authenticity and achievement.
Franklin and Lerner were instrumental in revealing the centrality of Blacks and women in U.S. history, the persistence of racism and patriarchy, and the ways that Blacks, whether enslaved or free, and women of all races, resisted inequality and oppression and struggled for change. Zinn, of course, wrote a highly politicized history that made no claims to objectivity, balance, or nuance and was anything but insipid, colorless, or wishy-washy, but which underlined the exploitation, violence, nativism, and class conflict, that runs like a red flag through American history.
Part of their popularity reflected the authors’ literary style, avoidance of complex historiographical debates, and ability to tackle big subjects without jargon or excessive reliance on theory while speaking to contemporary concerns. But as Witham also makes clear, specific circumstances also contributed to their success: the paperback revolution that made low-cost versions of their books readily accessible, the hunger among educated readers for a usable past, and college professors’ willingness to assign accessible but provocative history books to their students.
Recently, a number of academic historians, including Jill Lepore or Ibram X. Kendi, have tried to mimic their predecessors’ success. But even though these two scholars’ books have sold lots of copies, their impact hasn’t nearly equaled their precursors’. In part, that’s because popular works of economics and psychology have become much more central to society’s discourse, and history professors assign far fewer books. But a bigger reason, I suspect, is that the public has lost interest in a usable past that goes beyond the generalizations that are popular among the conservative right or the progressive left.
Recommendations that worked well in the past have lost a lot of their traction. It’s no longer enough to write accessibly and provocatively and try to speak to the present. Unlike Hofstadter and Boorstin who, in contrasting ways, sought to define and energize this country’s liberal tradition, or Franklin, Lerner, and Zinn, who played a crucial role in altering U.S. history’s narrative and its cast of characters, all that now seems like old hat.
The history books that have achieved a great deal of popularity, like Guns, Germs, and Steel (with sales of 4 million) or Sapiens (which has sold a mind-boggling 20 million copies worldwide), are notable for their geographical range and chronological scale and their provocative, stimulating and fresh interpretations.
Which brings me back to my original question: How, today, can we bring the past to life?
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to see a modest but profoundly moving play about the tragedy that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma over two days in May and June 1921, when a white mob destroyed some 1,200 homes across 35 city blocks, and on a single block obliterated four hotels, two newspapers, seven barber shops, nine restaurants, and some 14 doctors, dentists, lawyers, and real estate offices.
Entitled Resurrection, the play, by Anne L. Thompson-Scretching, a former playwright in residence at Newark’s African Globe Theatre, was performed just a couple of blocks from Broadway, on a make-shift stage on the fourth floor of a community center, witnessed by no more than a couple of dozen viewers.
Not a history lecture or a guilt trip, the play reconstructed the lives of a handful of those who lost their lives during the two days the violence raged. I could barely imagine a more powerful way to understand what was lost. Like Hersey’s account of the experience and aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, this, too, was history written with lightning.
By resurrecting those who were killed in Tulsa, this play reminded an entranced audience that the most gripping works of history are the stories of people much like us caught up in otherwise unimaginable circumstances. We should not forget that these were people who had “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, [and] passions” like us, “fed with the same food, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed by the same winter and summer …”
We who are fortunate to live “on top of the world,” who “have arrived at this peak to stay there forever,” who understand that “There is, of course, this thing called history. But history is something unpleasant that happens to other people“—have a special duty to remember the lives and the humanity of those not so blessed.
For we are indissolubly connected to those who preceded us. We do not inhabit an isolated island. We are part of a historical continuum, and therefore:
“Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”