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Luther Spoehr: Review of Erik Christiansen’s “Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)

Luther Spoehr, an HNN book editor and senior lecturer at Brown University, teaches the history of American school reform.

For many decades now, survey after survey has shown that American students learn little American history in their classrooms.  So disappointed historians should be glad that, at least since World War II, popular history has been, well, popular.  But, no.  Instead, most academic historians who pay any attention to popular history at all spend much of their time lamenting its inaccuracy, its blandness, its frequent failure to conform to scholarly standards and to academics’ own particular interpretations.

Erik Christiansen, a historian and public history coordinator at Rhode Island College (Rhode Island is a small state, but we’ve never met), repeatedly registers these familiar complaints in his study of five organizations and programs that brought American history to the public in the two decades after World War II.  Happily, despite its predictable (and presentist) fussing about their content and interpretations, the book adds valuable new insights into just how the History Book Club (still in operation today), the Du Pont Corporation’s “Cavalcade of America,” CBS’s “You Are There,” the Freedom Train (nearly forgotten today), and the Smithsonian presented the past to the American public in the two decades after World War II.

The “usable pasts” these programs created were not identical, but they shared many characteristics, including a tendency to rely on memory and nostalgia rather than critical analysis, and an unwillingness to rock the boat of Cold War consensus.  Christiansen generally emphasizes the similarities, tracing them primarily to demands and limitations imposed by corporate or governmental sponsorship.  This kind of top-down explanation overlooks the broader zeitgeist of the times:  there is no reason to think that, as the sustained patriotic spirit of World War II was succeeded by the widespread, militant spirit of the Cold War, history buffs would have bought into a more critical (meaning both “analytical” and “disapproving”) approach.

The spirit of the age was both celebratory and defensive, and all five of Christiansen’s examples reflected and were deeply affected by that fact.  The History Book Club, sparked by the legendary Bernard DeVoto, “in some ways encapsulates  the history of all of the educative efforts” explored in this book.  DeVoto wanted to take advantage of what he called the “growing national consciousness about the American past” to put the best writing about that past into the hands of as many people as possible.  Founded in 1947, with a board of editors that included luminaries such as J. Frank Dobie,  Stewart Holbrook, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the HBC quickly ran into trouble when its selections didn’t sell very well.  “The original HBC editors set out to provide their conception of the essence of history—new research and new interpretations written in comprehensive narrative form—to the public.  To succeed commercially, the club eventually aborted this mission in favor of a business plan that tried to provide the public with books on popular subjects.”  Within a year, DeVoto and the other original editors were gone.

The Du Pont Corporation’s “Cavalcade of America” demonstrates Christiansen’s argument about corporate efforts to control the popular narrative more definitively than the others.  It was, he says, “part of a larger project to redefine America in terms that suited business.”  Wounded by its depiction in the mid-1930s as one of the “merchants of death” which had supposedly manipulated the United States into the Great War, DuPont started to rehabilitate its image in October 1935 on radio. “Cavalcade of America’s” inaugural episode, “No Turning Back,” presented the Pilgrims as archetypes of perseverance and self-reliance, traits that Du Pont argued, (in Christiansen’s words) “were as necessary in 1935 as three hundred years before.

 On radio until 1953 and on TV from 1952 through 1957, “Cavalcade of America” returned to themes of rugged individualism and free enterprise again and again.  To make sure their message was getting through, Du Pont mounted an extensive public relations campaign and had the advertising firm Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne conduct surveys to measure public response.  They sent copies of the programs to schools and civic organizations (the president of Yale puffed that “the program offers complete authenticity for illuminating material of absorbing interest”).  BBDO claimed the TV version reached 10 to 15 million people per week in the mid-1950s. 

Du Pont’s public approval ratings soared.  “Cavalcade of America” certainly helped that happen.  But so did business’ overall ability to claim credit for helping the country to victory in World War II and, equally compelling, to claim a patriotic role in the Cold War.  Then there was ‘50s prosperity in general, which boosted the middle class and kept people from scoffing at the notion that what was good for General Motors was good for the country.  Christiansen spends comparatively little time on these contextual matters.

Speaking as an unscientific sample of one, I have no memory of seeing any “Cavalcade of America’s” episodes during my school days.  But I do remember CBS’s “You Are There,” and the inimitable tones of Walter Cronkite.  It ran on radio from 1947 to 1950, then came to television in 1953 and represented, says Christiansen, “leftist political ideology almost exactly opposite Du Pont’s…[P]olitical dissidents extolled ‘resistance to tyranny,’ and the historical episodes, drawn from European as well as American history, included ‘the most shameful moments in American history’ as well as a few triumphs.”  As often happened during the McCarthy era, the Salem Witch Trials were prominently featured, as were Anne Hutchinson and non-Americans including Galileo, Socrates, Joan of Arc, and others who could be depicted as standing up to tyranny.  Many episodes were written by pseudonymous writers on Hollywood’s black list, but, Christiansen says (qualifying his earlier statement) that “any interpretation that finds radical themes throughout the course of the series needs to be tempered.  Certainly the show’s politics fit a liberal worldview, but the cues indicating positions from the far left often were too slight for notice by anyone not already on the left.”  Certainly I didn't notice them.  In 1957, like “Cavalcade of America,” it left the air—pushed off by new programming formats and changing public tastes that Christiansen notes, but doesn’t analyze in any depth.

“Cavalcade of America” and “You Are There” occupy the right and left ends of the political spectrum laid out by the programs that Christiansen discusses.  The Freedom Train runs close to “Cavalcade.”  With backing from both business and the federal government, it went around the country from 1947 to 1949, carrying historic American documents and artifacts to 322 communities, many of them small towns that within a generation, as the railroads disappeared, would no longer be able to receive such visitors.  Celebration, not controversy, was supposed to be the rule: controversial topics such as immigration or labor unions were simply excluded.  Christiansen points out that “the mural next to the Emancipation Proclamation contained no African Americans.”  But the public didn’t always cooperate—when the train went through the South, protestors objected to the two sets of lines that segregated black and white visitors.

Christiansen’s final chapter traces the dramatic evolution of the Smithsonian Institution.  As late as the World War II years, said the Washington Star, visitors to the Arts and Industries Building were likely to “suffer at least a slight attack of claustrophobia,” and, Christiansen adds, “single, bare light bulbs illuminated ‘faded’ cases, and the whole place smelled of formaldehyde.”  Buoyed by the postwar faith in technology and progress, it became for a time the Museum of History and Technology, then the Museum of American History. 

By this point in the book, Christiansen is stressing more than ever that most of the popular history he analyzes was biased, warped, incomplete, and willfully misleading.  The Smithsonian, he says, “functioned similarly to the United States Information Agency (USIA) and other propaganda bureaus.”  The possibility that even propagandistic history can have unintentional, unexpected, even desirable outcomes, mentioned occasionally in passing earlier in the book, is pretty much pushed aside.

“By the late 1950s,” Christiansen says, “American society began to move in a different direction.”  Okay.  But why?  And how, exactly?  Given how suffocating and suffocated 1950’s America supposedly was, whence cometh this breath of fresh air?   He could have considered the possibility that harbingers of change were there all along.   But his analysis is straitjacketed by the stereotypical portrait of the ‘50s as narrow and conformist.

In any case, the changes weren’t all for the better.  Christiansen’s take on the current History Book Club, for instance, is no happier than his take on the early one:  “The HBC is now part of a conglomerate of forty book clubs….History has been commercialized and absorbed into the mass of books and other consumer products sold by this conglomerate.  Besides the discounted prices, the primary draw is the ‘vast selection’ available to subscribers, which is hardly a benefit in a world of unlimited sources.”  One might also point out that the HBC also stocks Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize winners and other serious (and, yes, critical) works of history, but again this might complicate the corporate “hegemony” he depicts.

Christiansen has written an informative, well-researched, useful book that casts considerable light on how mid-century Americans encountered history outside the classroom.  But like the programs he analyzes, his book is very much a product of its times, a polarized, cynical age in which the historical profession sees itself (not inaccurately) as increasingly marginalized.  But what society has ever been comprised primarily of citizens who studied history the way academic historians might want them to?  Why don’t more historians, instead of lamenting history’s rivalry with “heritage” and “memory,” take advantage of the fact that history is at least in the conversation?

At the very end of his book, Christiansen quotes approvingly the historian Charles McLean Andrews, who wrote (in 1924), “A nation’s attitude toward its own history is like a window into its own soul, and the men and women of such a nation cannot be expected to meet the great obligations of the present if they refuse to exhibit honesty, charity, open-mindedness, and a free and growing intelligence toward the past that has made them what they are.”  That’s well said.  And it goes for us historians, too.