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Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World 1st Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0809097043
ISBN-10: 0809097044
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this series of addresses and essays, many in print for the first time, one of America's preeminent historians does his profession proud. After discussing his own life history beginning with a New York leftist Jewish childhood, during which his family "discuss[ed] the intricacies of international relations and domestic politics over the dinner table" Foner (The Story of American Freedom), a professor at Columbia University, writes with erudition and clarity on a variety of historical subjects. At his best, he critically assesses the way American history and historians intersect. In an address he gave last year as president of the American Historical Association, he exhorted his colleagues to examine American history in an international context: "In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world." His critique of Ken Burns's Civil War documentary shows how the much-acclaimed series by depicting the war as a fight between Northern and Southern whites and by essentially excluding the Reconstruction, one of Foner's own specialties exhibits some of the same failings that have plagued historians of the era (which Foner calls "the most controversial and misunderstood era in our nation's history"). Other strong essays include a lecture on blacks and the U.S. Constitution and an analysis of the way historians have looked at socialism in the United States. The essays on history in South Africa and Russia, while thought-provoking, feel a bit dated (they were written in the mid-1990s). But as whole, these writings help to debunk the idea that history is irrelevant in the 21st century. (Apr.)
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Each individual has a vested interest in knowing the past because the past is in everyone. However, "everyone and no one" owns the past and "the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery," states Foner (history, Columbia Univ.), author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution and other respected titles on American history. In nine readable essays written between 1983 and 2001 and grouped in three sections "The Politics of History and Historians," "Rethinking History in a Changing World," and "The Enduring Civil War" Foner argues that the historian has a relationship with his or her own world. His style is personable and straightforward, and he effectively presses home his assumptions. From a historian's perspective, though, he adds nothing new; the question "Who owns history?" has been around in various guises for 30 years, and Foner's variation simply restates the theme that academics must be community-oriented if only to stay in touch with the public. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be, "Who determines which history is `anointed' as the `true' history?" Nevertheless, Foner is a respected historian, and he ably articulates a viewpoint shared by many of his colleagues. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 233 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (April 20, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809097044
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809097043
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,249,828 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Harold McFarland HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on May 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
What constitutes history and how it should be told has become an increasingly significant question over the years. How events are portrayed in history texts often is more the result of the social climate at the time or the purpose of the writer than actual fact.
Part of the problem with history is that as new facts are discovered and new perspectives proposed history is rewritten. Different groups offer a different perspective to the traditional perspective. So, we now have black history, women's history, etc. However, these same historians must deal with a fickle public whose primary interest in history has traditionally been that it be told with a particular purpose in mind. When the Constitution states that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we are taught that it means literally everyone. However, history has at times excluded American Indians, Black Americans and others. Particular areas of the United States have excluded the Irish, the Catholic, the Polish, the Japanese or any number of other groups.
This book contains nine essays by Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, that were prepared for various conferences and book introductions. In these essays Foner examines how the historian interacts with the history and their surroundings and how that interaction determines their perspective on history. It includes essay on Mr. Foner's personal life as a historian and the things that influence his perspective. Others include essays on modern Russia and post-apartheid South Africa and how they are rethinking their past in view of the current changes. Probably the most interesting essays are in Mr. Foner's area of specialization - slavery, the Civil War and post-Reconstruction America.
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This is an insightful and thought-provoking collection of essays on the study of history by the eminent American historian, Eric Foner. Foner's best known works focus on the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and that is a major focus for this book. In addition, Foner writes about how his own life shaped his interest in history, and his attitudes towards it. The key message of the book is that history is necessarily interpretive, and that interpretation of the past is shaped by current political realities. This is vividly demonstrated when one compares (as Foner does) the Ken Burns version of the Civil War (a battle between brothers that led to reconciliation) to Foner's own interpretation (a struggle over slavery that still has not be completely resolved). 'Who owns history?' is an important subtext in current American political debate, and "Who Owns History?" is a great help in thinking about the problem.
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Interesting take on issues from the point of an intellectual. As a non-scholar I found it not only interesting but impressive. It's not common (for me, anyway) to find a scholarly text that is as eminently readable as this one.
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Foner is not one to beat around the bush. He tackles pressing social and political issues head on. In this remarkable collection of essays, he has taken aim at several key issues which define contemporary society. The most compelling essay is probably "Blacks and the U.S. Constitution," in which he examines the motivations behind the conservative desire to read the Constitution in terms of its "original intent."
As Foner notes, this is more a political than a historical argument. By narrowing the interpretation of the Constitution to its "original intent," conservatives hope to avoid addressing the more thorny issues which the later amendments attempt to address. He views the current decisions by the Supreme Court as part of an overall drive toward "Redemption," similar to the period of readjustment, in which states nullified much of the Civil Rights legislation which was enacted by the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction. This eventually led to the notorious era of Jim Crow.
Foner views history as a continuum, not a set of isolated events, which can be referred to to bolster one's political arguments, whether they be conservative or liberal. Like his mentor, Richard Hofstadter, Foner rebels against consensus opinion, asking readers to form minds of their own. The essays are gritty and compelling and serve as a reminder of the intellectual prowess of one of the foremost historians of our time.
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Format: Paperback
There may be those who simplistically view history as no more than gathering and presenting "facts" about the past, but noted historian Eric Foner would respond that history involves the interpretation of facts and is subject to change. But history is not pure subjectivity; historical truth is a "reasonable approximation of the past." Despite the title of the book, the author does not directly address the issue of "ownership" of history. There is the question of who produces history. Is history mainly produced by academic historians, which slowly filters into the public's consciousness? Or is historical understanding dominated by large institutions such as the mass media, think tanks, and the education industry, many of whom are inclined to promote an historical agenda? The author acknowledges that "for years historians have been aware that historical traditions are invented and manipulated. In addition, "forgetting some aspects of the past is as much a part of historical understanding as remembering others." This may be due simply to ignorance or poor scholarship. Or more disturbingly, historical distortion may be a sinister effort by various social and economic elites to dominate and manipulate social understandings.

The United States is a nation founded on the ideals of liberty, political equality and democracy. We are not a traditional society where unquestioned myths passed down from generation to generation are the glue of society. Openness and informed debate about all matters, including those historical, are essential in a society based on rational decision making. Not understanding our principles, how we have lived up to them, and where we need to go is not an option.
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