Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Bookshelf: Remaking America by John Bodnar

Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century by John Bodnar was my fourth reading selection for the seminar. I was looking forward to reading it, as I find public memory an interesting topic. Why do communities or nations remember what they do? Are these memories just what people remember, talk about, and want to revisit or are these memories crafted by certain people who expect others to play along?

Since the civil war there has apparently been tension in the United States between what regular people (the vernacular) want to celebrate and what elites or the nation-states (the official) think we should celebrate. This tension between vernacular and official is encapsulated in the prologue which discusses the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Bodnar makes the case that public memory, especially regarding commemorative events like the anniversary of an ethnic community or the Fourth of July, is primarily crafted by elites who want to support their position and the status quo, but they face push back from the common people. Elites though run the gamut from middle class businessmen and professionals in a small town, to employees of the national park service, to the nation-state.

If the communal memories of immigrant or ethnic communities interest you then chapter three, "The Construction of Ethnic Memory" should be on your reading list. This section of the book details how celebrations in these communities changed through time. While the focus on pioneers and first settlers was relatively unchanged, earlier celebrations rekindled ties to the homeland, later ones cemented ties to America. The change in perspective was caused by war: First, Second and Cold.

I particularly enjoyed chapter 7, "The National Park Service and History."  In my architectural historian days, when I assessed buildings for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places I used an historic rubric devised by the NPS. I also read a fair bit about the NPS and their struggle to reinterpret sites when I taught Public History several years ago. While the NPS might be an agent of the nation-state, I do believe the staff there do good work and are more "open minded" about incorporating minority or vernacular view points than they might have been in the past.

I found the ideas expressed in this text to be really fascinating and I think it fits the topic of the seminar, especially since Bodnar includes several examples from Cleveland. While I'm not so keen on elites manufacturing or structuring the past to protect their position (think US History textbooks or debates over the meaning of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution); I do think we need some common understanding of the past, at least at a macro-level, to hold us together as a nation. In Bodnar's parlance, I prefer the vernacular, but understand the position of the official.

However, and this is difficult since Bodnar will be at the seminar, I didn't really care for the way the book was written. Even I was turned off by phrases like: "Because it takes the form of an ideological system with special language, beliefs, symbols, and stories, people  can use it as a cognitive device to mediate competing interpretations and privilege some explanations over others." (p. 14) To be fair, he was dealing with ideas and concepts which are, I think, harder to write about, than say, the Founding Fathers. Therefore, this book is really only for the keen, the student, or the professional historian (public or academic). If you are someone who is interested in history "just for fun" this book is probably not for you.

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