Finishing up the semester next week, and I've got one major paper left. The class is Issues and Interpretations in American History, and without being to prosaic, the professor has decreed that our final assignment is to consider and reflect on the twelve books and three articles we've read during the last fourteen weeks and use them to consider the issues and interpretations we face as future historians. So easy, it's hard.
I'm writing on the meaning of race and class in American history and the relationships of those social constructs to the notion of republicanism--which has been a foundational theme in our class. This is the opening to my paper, and the reason I love what I am doing:
Since the advent of history as a profession in the Unites States, beginning around the time Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed and discussed the effects this would have on "the American,” the historian has essentially waged an ongoing battle against a teleological past. That is, we have spent several hundred years constructing a history along a singular line, often blatantly leaving out many of its complications, in an attempt to tell a clean narrative. Then, around midcentury last, we realized our error: the din of missing voices was to loud to ignore, and we began again, reinterpreting our past, doing all we could to stave off that urge to make the past into one nice, clean history. Our natural compulsion leans toward a teleological storyline, and so we continue to teach schoolchildren—and sometimes, even undergraduates—from textbooks that grandly sum things up, so that they can walk away with a set of “the facts.” But the best thing about history is the din of all those voices, every interpretation and perspective, and the elementary truth that in order to tell the whole story, history can neither be simple nor short, nor known by any one person—ever.
So to embark upon a discussion of the issues and interpretations in American history is to admit that there is inherently no crisply-drawn right and wrong in the art of argument, and that all we can attempt to do is add to the historiographical conversation that began long before, hopefully in a constructive way, and come out with a better understanding of our past and the historians who have collected it.
And I plunge from here boldly into the complexities of those stubborn demons we like to muddle, misinterpret, reinterpret, deconstruct, reconstruct, and at times, ignore or pretend do not exist. Race, class, America.