In Search of Tradition
THE tradition of antitraditionalism is as old as the United States itself. John Quincy Adams expressed its stern ideal. "Democracy has no monuments," Adams reasoned. "It strikes no medals. It bears the head of no man on a coin."
In the early years of the republic, many people would have agreed with Adams. Vigorous social movements like utopianism and evangelicalism focused more on destiny than on history. Tradition was vaguely suspect, the cold hand of the past retarding progress. For much of the 19th century, formal education deliberately neglected American history. By and large, the nation was fixed on the present and the future.
While that vision continues to have adherents, it was long ago eclipsed by the yearning to secure a national memory. As the US grew spatially and developed industrially, it came to be understood that history and hope were not antithetical. One can hear what will become the dominant outlook ringing in the closing sentences of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address. "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory ... will yet swell the chorus of t he Union ...," he said.
Lincoln's vain attempt to pitch the power of national memory against sectional antagonisms became a prototype for a lasting tension in the United States. Industrialization, westward expansion, and the influx of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries heightened historical consciousness, but left unresolved just which history one ought to remember and how history should function on the national scene.
Is history a reconciler of persons and ideas? Does it spring from the deeds of outstanding men and women, or does it rest in the anonymous record of everyday life? Where regional identity clashes with national disposition, which has the most authentic claim on the individual?
Cornell University historian Michael Kammen takes up the American interpretation of these questions. Though his text ranges from the American Revolutionary period to the present, it is clearly the contemporary struggle to interpret the role of tradition within a national setting that interests Kammen. In his introductory remarks, he observes that during the last decade countries around the globe have increasingly attempted to reconstruct their pasts.
Kammen fears that, especially since World War II, Americans have become obsessed with ersatz history - a treacly blend of nostalgia and heritage that sugar-coats the conflicts and complexities of the American past. The "heritage syndrome," he cautions, arises in times of profound societal change, as people come to terms with discontinuity. Frequently, the balm of permanence and timelessness is bought at the expense of historical accuracy and moral probity.
Arguably, historic sites, museums, and restorations enlarge the public appreciation for the American past. What worries Kammen is that the past presented often is a sunny, unproblematic one, licensed to ignore social relations then and now. He reminds us that in the postwar years, Jews had difficulty making reservations at the inn in Colonial Williamsburg, and African-American visitors were humiliated by having to use separate restroom facilities there.
Several times, Kammen skirts the margins of the contemporary debate about multiculturalism. He bemoans "the abyss of bad textbooks," and notes approvingly the growing vitality of the history of everyday life and of the disenfranchised. Kammen's extensive erudition, coupled with his social concern and anxiety about the effects of phony history conjoin to nominate him to the post of public intellectual. Surely, educators and policymakers, pressed to communicate fairly the diverse histories and pasts of the
United States, would have welcomed this perspective.