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Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World    by Eric Foner order for
Who Owns History?
by Eric Foner
Order:  USA  Can
Hill & Wang, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Who owns history? The author, himself a renowned historian, gives the succinct answer 'Everyone and no-one' in his introduction, and then elaborates on it in this thoughtful and thought-provoking compilation of talks and essays, in three parts: 'The Politics of History and Historians', 'Rethinking History in a Changing World', and 'The Enduring Civil War.'

Eric Foner begins by describing his own experience as a child of historians (who lost their jobs due to a 'precursor of McCarthyism'); as a graduate student whose mentor was Richard Hofstadter, 'the premier historian of his generation'; and as an instructor in African-American history at Columbia. He explains how the study of history has changed to reflect 'history from below', and to move away from a public celebratory approach. The author describes how his interest in the Reconstruction Period grew, along with a conviction (differing from the prevailing view) that 'the freed people were the central actors in the drama of Reconstruction'. The subsequent essay explores 'The Education of Richard Hofstadter', in particular the impact of his dissertation on Social Darwinism in American Thought.

The author then takes on the history of globalization ('Today's globalized communications follow in the footsteps of clipper ships, the telegraph, and the telephone'). He addresses the notion of American freedom itself, and how this slippery concept has evolved through the years, for example its glorification as 'free enterprise' during the cold war. I was particularly struck by this essay's closing comment ... 'In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent monologue with ourselves.' In this same section is an equally timely talk on the Russians' rewriting of history after the end of the Soviet era, and one on the the policy of reconciliation, with its push to forget the specters of the past, in the new South Africa. In both cases, the author emphasizes the importance of developing a common sense of past in building a country's future. This part ends with a fascinating discussion of the absence of socialism in the United States.

The final section of the book discusses a 'powerful exclusionary dimension' there from the beginnings of American citizenship. The author goes back to the Reconstruction period, in which there was a backlash after the post Civil War commitment to 'equality before the law, regardless of race'. He then makes a parallel to what has gone on recently in the Supreme Court trend to back away from support of minorities in employment discrimination cases. The author also takes issue with the 'parochial vision' of Ken Burns' successful series, The Civil War, in glossing over the Reconstruction Period, whose events 'place the issue of racial justice on the agenda of modern American life.'

In a kind of reverse Heisenberg principle of history, Eric Foner shows us in Who Owns History? the impact of the observation (and interpretation) of past events on the observer, that is on historians and the societies in which they live. While accessible to non-academics, this is not a light read; it's a book that needs thorough digestion. But it's well worth the effort and left me wondering how much of what I think I know of the past is hype, and how much history.

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