Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Bookshelf: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History by David Lowenthal

I saved The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History by David Lowenthal for last because I had already read it - five years ago. The purpose of the book is to distinguish between heritage and history,   to point out the benefits and drawbacks of each, and how the two work together. History and historians don't so much tell the truth, as "try to do so despite being aware that truth is a chameleon." Historians are impacted by bias, their own historical context, the availability of sources among others. However, they do try to create an accurate representation of the past to the best of their ability. Heritage is not about truth at all, but "faith in a particular past." Lowenthal sums it up by stating: "History aims to explain through critical inquiry; heritage aims to celebrate and congratulate."

The book details his argument with examples from history, current events and literature. Heritage is masculine, concerned with first, all about us (not them), and is worth protecting. History often disproves popular myths bound up with heritage, but the latter is rarely recreated. Difficulties arise for minorities or subcultures, who frequently construct their heritage by negating the dominant cultural heritage. This last insight from Lowenthal ought to be useful in understanding the many immigrant communities in Cleveland as well as the disputes about competing heritages in the US and the UK.

This book is much more accessible to the general reader, so give it a go if you are interested in heritage and history. For the student or academic, Lowenthal provides much food for thought (and probably argument and disagreement) and would be useful for all sorts of research projects. On this second reading I did find Lowenthal's style a bit flower-y and that felt the book was overwritten. He used too many examples and his arguments might have been stronger if they had been more succinct. On the other hand, I read the book at the same time my young niece and nephew were visiting, so I might have been distracted...

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