The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), in partnership with the White House Millennium Council, announced in 1999 a “millennium project” entitled “My History Is America’s History.” The project’s literature enjoins us to “follow your family’s story and you will discover America’s history.” Its website offers a link called “Welcome to Our Front Porch,” a place “where you can exchange family stories, explore the nation’s past, and make your story part of the American heritage we all share.” The section called “Exchange Family Stories” juxtaposes “your favorite family story” with “America’s stories.” The link “Find Your Place in History” features a history timeline, history files ( entries from contributing partner Houghton Mifflin’s popular reference book The Reader’s Companion to American History), and a “history roundtable,” yet to be set up at the time of this writing. There is even a link for “Saving Your Family Treasures.” What used to be disparaged as mere genealogy is now being accorded the full status of “history.”
Now, of all the good reasons one studies American history, surely one of the most compelling is the fact that it is one’s own. In saying this, I momentarily presume that most of my readers are Americans. But the principle involved is universal in character. To understand the history of one’s own country, even when one feels oneself to be more or less detached from it—and even if one is in rebellion against it—is to gain insight into who one is, and into basic elements of one’s makeup. Such insight serves to frame and amplify our own experience, in much the same way that our perception of our own city or town is transformed when we have absorbed and internalized the history of that place’s streets and buildings and neighborhoods. Then even the most routine street scenes reverberate in our awareness with invisible meanings, intimations, and half-buried moods that flicker back and forth, again and again, between what we see and what we know and what we remember. Historical consciousness discloses to us the strains of a distant, pervasive music that is inaudible to those who live merely in the present.
In the presence of great historical sites, such as the Gettysburg or Antietam battlefields, such awareness takes an even deeper hold of our imaginations and emotions. It is like the sweet melancholy of a solo violin, whose haunting voice pierces us, through all the layers of rationality, with the keen edge of loss. There is a continuity of sorts between such profound emotions and the mingled thoughts and feelings that arise in us when we revisit one of the long-forgotten places of our childhood, or mark the gravestone of someone precious whom we have lost. Man is in love, said Yeats, and loves what vanishes. Such is the painful beauty of historical awareness. Our efforts to connect with the vanished past do not necessarily make us happier in any simple sense. But they make us more fully human and more fully at home in the world, in time as well as space.
Historical study can also unlock the hidden sources of certain ideas, dispositions, and habits in us by showing us their rootedness in people and events that came before us. In fact, it is not at all far-fetched to understand historical study as bearing a certain resemblance to psychoanalysis in this respect, since both are enterprises intent upon excavating and bringing to conscious awareness the knowledge of consequential antecedents. Indeed, the analogy to individual psychology goes even deeper than that. There comes a point in our personal development when an awareness dawns on us, not only of how profoundly we have been shaped by our own parents and milieu, but just as importantly, of how our parents have been shaped by their own parents and milieus, which have in turn been shaped by an even earlier set of parents and milieus, and so on. Once our reflections are set into motion along these lines, our minds crabwalk backward in thought, moving generation by generation along the genealogical path until the path begins mysteriously to peter out and finally disappears into the mists. This too is a lesson in historical awareness.
Such an intensely personal approach to history—as a subject that tells us about ourselves—is more and more popular in our very psychological age. It is common these days for high school and college teachers to get their students interested in history by asking them to interview their grandparents or (if they have them) great-grandparents, and ask those elders about their own earlier times, and their own experiences and observations. The point is to help students feel personally connected to the abstractions of the past through someone they know—and it does that wonderfully well. It can serve especially well as a way of giving life to the great American story of immigration, or to the rigors of the Great Depression, or to the now remote experiences of the Second World War. Indeed, something of the sort is essential from time to time, to keep historical study from becoming too bloodless and abstract, too removed from experience. For African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, it is especially encouraging and stimulating to discover that American history includes their lives, and not merely the lives of elite political, business, and military leaders. But they are hardly alone in this need. It is something we all share, and perhaps increasingly so.
Hence the millennium project of the NEH. As I have suggested, there is much to be said for the general proposition of personalizing history. But this particular way of going about it is deeply troubling, and clearly reveals what are also the weaknesses of such an approach. Let us leave aside for the moment the rather immediate question of whether the NEH should even be doing such things in the first place, and ask a different question: can it really be true that “my history is America’s history”? Or, to put it another way, isn’t such an assertion a very, very different matter from saying that “America’s history is my history”? The experience of visiting Gettysburg is an example of the latter. Such a visit elevates and charges our individual experience by infusing the general meaning of the larger into the particular texture of the smaller—“America” into “me.” But what could it possibly mean to go in the other direction—from the droplet to the ocean, as it were—and assert that “my family story” is “the American story”? Is this not really a sentimental delusion, a sop to our vanity, and an appeal to our colossal narcissism, on a par with those annoying bumper stickers that boast, “I Can Save the Earth”?
Perhaps so, perhaps not. It will be interesting to see how, and if, the project develops. At the outset, though, one can say that it has a distinctly Clintonian air about it, with its feel-good faux-folksiness, its unthreatening bite-sized quality, its easy conflation of the village and the nation—its website is billed as “a virtual front porch for every American”—and its smarmy presumption that, just as it is now the national government’s proper business to promote school uniforms and inveigh against “social promotion,” so it is now the Feds’ business to make sure that Americans record their family stories and hang onto their family photographs. Aside from the nannying overtones of such a presumption, there is something incongruous about the idea that people who have the skills and wherewithal to find their way around an Internet website still need help in preserving their family heirlooms. By the same token, it seems absurdly obvious that families lacking the cohesion needed to preserve their own memories will have very few memories worth preserving. And when the website assures us that “‘My History’ will weave a powerful tapestry of America that illustrates our nation’s history and culture,” one wants to ask, exactly how is this going to happen? Will the stories weave themselves?
The millennium project is, then, a useful touchstone, which reminds us that there are inherent limits to the personalization of history, and inherent gaps between our own stories and those of the nation and the world. There is nothing wrong with collecting family stories, but no one should be under the illusion that these can magically transform themselves into history. History can and should be a vehicle for the exploration of our self-consciousness. But it should also serve constantly to interrupt the monologue of our self-awareness. It has to do both of these things, and it is not quite doing its job when it fails to do one or the other.
The study of history is not only about familiarization but also defamiliarization; not only about knowledge of ourselves, but also knowledge of that which is other than ourselves. That is why we should not study only American history, or only modern history, or only Western history. That, too, is why it is so profoundly misleading to say that “my history is America’s history,” and why the faulty premise behind that statement is such a pernicious one. We have to reject the essentially narcissistic idea that history is valueless unless it reflects our own image back to us. On the contrary: one of the principal uses of the truly usable past lies in its intransigence and otherness, its insistence upon the large structures in which our lives are embedded, its stubborn resistance to our sentiments, its unwillingness to oblige our narcissism—its haunting reminder, through its record of landscapes littered with shattered monuments to forgotten Ozymandiases, of our mortality and our ultimate insignificance.
The problem is no doubt complicated by the fact that we Americans have, in some measure, lost our guiding national narrative—not completely, but certainly we have lost it as a near—universal article of faith. There is too much self-conscious doubt, too little confidence that the nation itself is as worthy of our devotion as is our subgroup. Indeed, the personalization of history is of a piece with the rising interest in more particularist considerations of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and so on, all of which have had the effect of draining energy away from the national story, rendering it either weak and indecisive—or the villain in a thousand stories of “subaltern” oppression.
The problem is not that such stories do not deserve to be told. They do. There is always a horrific price to be paid in consolidating a nation, and one is obliged to tell the whole story if one is to count the cost fully. The brutal displacement of Indian tribes, the horrors of chattel slavery and post-emancipatory peonage, the grim conditions of industrial labor, the ongoing tragedy of racial hatred, the hidden injuries of class-all these stories and others like them need to be told and heard. It is not the content of these more particular stories that constitutes the problem for our dissolving national narrative. It is the fact that the push to tell them, and feature them, has been too successful. The story of American history has been deconstructed into a thousand pieces, a development that has been reinforced and furthered by both professional and ideological motives, but one that is likely in due course to have untoward public effects.
Which raises an interesting question: since throughout history strong and cohesive nations generally have had strong and cohesive historical narratives, how long can we do without one? Do our historians now have an obligation to help us recover one that amounts to something more than a bland-to-menacing general background against which the struggles of smaller groups can be highlighted? Or are the scholarly obligations of historians fundamentally at odds with taking on any public role, particularly one so prominent? Such a conundrum is not easily resolved. One should, however, at least acknowledge that it exists. And one should acknowledge that the decision to let a thousand flowers bloom and opt for “virtual front porches” is a kind of answer, even if it is couched in the form of a comfortable deferral. Who, after all, could possibly object to folks swapping yarns on the porch? But we will have to wait a very long time, a Darwinian length of time, before all those stories finally weave themselves into American History.
One should not overreact and deny storytelling its place, however; nor should one miss the implicit critique of professionalized history that is clearly embodied in the “My History” project. Whatever its shortcomings, “My History” constitutes a ringing affirmation that history is a form of consciousness as well as a body of knowledge, and that any effort to transform history into the exclusive property of an accredited guild of Ph.D.s will deservedly fail. Such populist sentiments are not enough in themselves, but they often are a useful first step. One can hope that some will carry the insight further, and come to the realization that the proper study of history is also a discipline of the soul. Which means that the ultimate goal of the study of history, like that of all the liberal arts, is what Plato saw as the goal of all inquiry—ushering us out of the mental caverns into which we are born and into the light of a real and public world.
We should not jettison all our stories in the process, since part of what the clear light shows us is the extent to which our identity is conjoined to things we cannot merely wish away. But neither should we be under the illusion that those stories are coextensive with History. This may be a blow to our vanity. But, given the dismal record of so much of human history, perhaps not such a bitter pill to swallow in the end. Indeed, it is our ability to think unseasonable thoughts, and withhold the songs of Zion when we find ourselves on Babylon’s shores—in short, our commitment to meanings that we cannot see—that enables our existence as moral agents. For believing Christians and Jews, that very disjunction is a reason for being, and a reason for hope. They will have their own reasons to be glad that their history and America’s history are two different, though intersecting, things.
Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.