U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Past, Present Tense

Here, swinging between the pit of politics and Foucault’s pendulum in the Paris Panthéon, we see “The Mechanics of History” reimagined by the artist Yoann Bourgeois. Take a minute to watch the video and appreciate the artwork’s ironic dynamism: man’s upward trudge to power, the moment his ascent wavers, his plunge downward, and the hard, bouncing rewind. But is this the only story of power that we, as historians, can tell? Bourgeois’ artwork suggests there is deeper, greater work to be done. His art syncs, too, with the words of Arkansas-born poet Miller Williams: “We have memorized America, / how it was born and who we have been and where. / In ceremonies and silence we say the words, / telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.” Whether or not history really has, as Henry Adams famously argued, a certain phase-like “tendency” in terms of power, I’m sure that the USIH book salon’s next choice, Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto, will pave a few more paths forward for intellectual historians to explore. The new year seems like a good time to reconsider history’s mechanics, and to gear up for a new season of historical thinking about all the places in the past that it might take us.

The year 2018 holds a rich series of anniversaries and milestones for scholars to assess and survey. San Antonio and New Orleans were founded in 1718, and 1818 saw a major realignment of American borders. A century on, the devastating global pandemic of influenza again reshaped international relations. Several cultural birthdays of note earn note on the historian’s calendar for 2018, too. These literary classics are all hitting the century mark: Henry Adams’ Education; Willa Cather’s My Antonia; Alice Dunbar Nelson’s Mine Eyes Have Seen; and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein turns 200. This year we’ll also honor the bicentennial birthdays of some leading lights of the nineteenth century (Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, Jacob Burckhardt, Maria Mitchell, Amelia Bloomer) as well as remember the lives of those who died in 1818 (Abigail Adams, Paul Revere). Looking back on the watershed year of 1968, we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, plus: that pivotal year’s intense political activities, the film releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby, a Miss America pageant protest, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae.

Colleagues, which anniversaries, milestones, and people will shape your historical thinking this year? Share your ideas in the comments below, and happy new year!

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