Public history is a collective public narrative that commemorates and maintains stories about who we are as a people and involves the creation of a “usable past” that speaks to the present, emerging from a dialogic relationship between the legacies of the past, the struggles of the present, and the promises of the future.
The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks coined the term “usable past” in 1918 to codify the idea that a collectively recognized national past was necessary to imbue US artists with a sense of cultural tradition that was distinctly American. Thus was the term emergent from an American identity crisis, born of the historic cultural displacement of peoples and cultures in the “New World.” It’s interesting that this notion also emerged on the heels of a massive wave of immigration to the US from Europe, the Red Scare and a push for Americanization, and in the midst of US involvement in a massive European conflict.
Americans, with their penchant for self invention, are often said to have no sense of history. But we know form the work of Thelan and Rosenzweig, for example, that many people have or seek a personal relationship to the past through memories, ancestors, heritage, and other group identities. Individuals and groups have a stake in particular kinds of knowledge, politics, experiences that (in)form their perspectives on the past.
The idea of a “usuable past” has long fallen into disfavor for its essentialism among other things, but I’d like to resurrect it as a — well, usable — concept to the extent that it acknowledges our present investment in certain pasts and the way in which we understand history and its legacies for and from our own experience. I think it’s possible to do this strategically without being thoroughly presentist and without creating the master cultural narrative that the 20th century critics sought. Rather, we can think of the legacies of various pasts for our presents, of the manifold perspectives on history and the way in which individuals and groups invest in these perspectives, of history as a cacophony of stories that coalesce, in specific times and places, into narratives that make meaning in our own time.