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Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America
     

Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America

by Erik Christiansen
 

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After the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans looked to the nation’s more distant past for lessons to inform its uncertain future. By applying recent and emerging techniques in mass communication—including radio and television programs and commercial book clubs—American elites working in media, commerce, and government used

Overview

After the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans looked to the nation’s more distant past for lessons to inform its uncertain future. By applying recent and emerging techniques in mass communication—including radio and television programs and commercial book clubs—American elites working in media, commerce, and government used history to confer authority on their respective messages.
    With insight and wit, Erik Christiansen uncovers in Channeling the Past the ways that powerful corporations rewrote history to strengthen the postwar corporate state, while progressives, communists, and other leftists vied to make their own versions of the past more popular. Christiansen looks closely at several notable initiatives—CBS’s flashback You Are There program; the Smithsonian Museum of American History, constructed in the late 1950s; the Cavalcade of America program sponsored by the Du Pont Company; the History Book Club; and the Freedom Train, a museum on rails that traveled the country from 1947 to 1949 exhibiting historic documents and flags, including original copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Magna Carta.
    It is often said that history is written by the victors, but Christiansen offers a more nuanced perspective: history is constantly remade to suit the objectives of those with the resources to do it. He provides dramatic evidence of sophisticated calculations that influenced both public opinion and historical memory, and shows that Americans’ relationships with the past changed as a result.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Christiansen (history, Rhode Island Coll.) here surveys how the political Right and Left used real events to construct a "citizen's history" that sought not only a popular consensus of America's past, but used that historical memory to gain legitimacy for—and to further—their political and economic agendas. In building his case, Christiansen skillfully tackles the DuPont Company's construction of "usable propaganda" in its sponsorship of the television series Cavalcade of America; academic historians' attempt to "diffuse applicable historical knowledge" with the History Book Club; CBS News's "leftist" You Are There series; the American Heritage Foundation's attempt to create pseudo-religious "iconography" with the Freedom Train of 1947–49; and the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History exhibits, which, like the other examples, eventually sacrificed historical validity to pecuniary and popular interests. VERDICT This is an insightful analysis of the uses and misuses of history in an age of high anxiety and political polarization. It's a timely and intellectually nuanced work that will appeal to both scholars and serious general readers with an interest in Cold War intellectualism. Fans of Jon Wiener's How We Forgot the Cold War should also consider it.—Brian Odom, Marshall Space & Flight Ctr. Archives, NASA, Huntsville, AL
Publishers Weekly
The telling of American history has always been fraught with myth-making, sentimentality, and, controversy. As historians and writers in the postwar era shifted their attention from elite to popular audiences, the political stakes grew. Christiansen, an assistant professor of history at Rhode Island College, uses five case histories to document how elites, from corporations to the news media, have subtly infused historical narratives with their own distinctive philosophies for consumption by middle America. The chemical giant Du Pont, no fans of labor-sympathizer FDR, trumpeted American achievement through its Cavalcade radio broadcasts with sanitized tales of historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea, and even the Du Pont family itself, while burnishing the image of business and capitalism. By the time the program moved to television, it had a devoted following and had earned the respect of a generation of viewers. The CBS production You Are There approached American history from a different angle, employing blacklisted Hollywood writers who imbued the episodes with left-of-center perspectives and subtle anti-communist commentaries on current events. This is meaty fare for a discerning audience willing to wade into meticulously researched case-studies to better understand how Americans have "cherry-picked" the past in service of contemporary aims. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Christiansen’s examination of the making of popular history in postwar America adds greatly to contemporary debates over how Americans do and do not use their history in public. It harkens back to a time before cable television and the Internet, when ‘mass media’ was more of a common experience. In particular, his investigation of how Du Pont and BBDO used audience research to shape the public history they presented on their radio and television programs is a real eye-opener that readers won’t forget.”—David Glassberg, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“Postwar America was a surprisingly creative time for making U.S. history come alive and for disseminating the ‘lessons’ of that history to broad and diverse American publics. Erik Christiansen explains why this was so and, through meticulous research, reconstructs the rise and fall of five key public history initiatives. A probing, illuminating, and elegantly written work.”—Gary Gerstle, Vanderbilt University

“This is an insightful analysis of the uses and misuses of history in an age of high anxiety and political polarization. It’s a timely and intellectually nuanced work that will appeal to both scholars and serious general readers with an interest in Cold War intellectualism.”—Library Journal

“Christiansen has written an informative, well-researched, useful book that casts considerable light on how mid-century Americans encountered history outside the classroom.”—HNN: History News Network

“This very accessible, fast-moving read examines revisionist movements from the Great Depression through the early stages of the Cold War.”—Choice

Channeling the Past may focus mainly on corporations rewriting history to influence public opinion, but it also delves into attempts by various groups on the political left to bolster their message by invoking the past.”—Minnesota History Magazine

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780299289034
Publisher:
University of Wisconsin Press
Publication date:
03/15/2013
Series:
Studies in American Thought and Culture
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
264
File size:
916 KB

Meet the Author

Erik Christiansen is assistant professor of history and public history coordinator at Rhode Island College.

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