Heritage vs. History

The heritage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but certainly a non-conspiratorial response–an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest.  Heritage is composed of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm.  As an alternative to history, heritage accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic.  One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history–that is, a false consciousness that historical knowledge and understanding are alive and well in the United States.

            Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 626

To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’ motives and behavior.

            Peter Novick, That Noble Dream

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7 thoughts on “Heritage vs. History

  1. Michael Aubrecht

    Kevin, First, let me begin by saying that I have always enjoyed your insights and I often feel that you are “right on target.” That is why I link to you on my own website. But… unless I am misunderstanding your post here (and it wouldn’t be the first time – I can be slow), it appears that by using these two quotes as your statement, you are presenting a belief that history and heritage don’t necessarily mix. Is that the point?

    If so, I have to beg to disagree. Obviously there is a need for the unbiased (and non-agenda-driven) presentation of history, as without it, truth becomes a thing of the past. This represents the academic-side of the genre, which in turn, becomes the reference material for future generations. However, if one is able to put things in their proper context (i.e. there is a time and place for the “textbook” as well as the “tribute”) then there is also a place for heritage in history. Speaking strictly on behalf of my own personal opinion and experiences, it is the heritage that initially instigates the desire, the need, and the motivation for the study and sharing of history. If not for the efforts of our historical figures’ ancestors (in the saving and preserving) of their relative’s legacy (and artifacts) – then what would we (and those historians before us) have to work with? Are not Stuarts’ ancestors to be applauded for their meticulous dedication and attention to the preservation and presentation of J.E.B.’s legacy? If not for a pride in their own heritage – who would have labored to carry on the family’s story? Is not there room for both a 1000-page military-based, tactical tome of dry unbiased analysis – AND a more romantic, inspiring and glorified version of the subject? Your quote states that “To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives,,” – It may be me, but that sounds so boring.

    You and I have both done speaking engagements (I think) – who would you rather talk to… some stuffy room filled w/ “vanilla” history professors or the Sons Of Confederate (or Union) Veterans? Who gives you better feedback and enthusiasm? Who appreciates your efforts more and “drives” you to work harder to present their relatives in an accurate (BUT respectful and positive) light? I understand that we can gloss over the “bad stuff” – I’ve been guilty of that myself and forced to go back and integrate more “unpleasantries” in some of my works – BUT that doesn’t mean that I am wrong for praising individuals and presenting their better-side.

    Now before you take offense, PLEASE understand that I am one of those writers who does BOTH. As a Baseball-Almanac historian, I have written hundreds of recaps and essays on MLB history. When I am wearing my one “hat” and writing about the World Series or the All-Star Game, or Every MLB Season, or Biographies (as I do) it is presented in an un-biased manner. When I wear my other cap and write more “personal” essays (w/ more an editorial-approach), I totally write in a fan-mode. These pieces are more tribute-like and totally biased for whatever team, event, or player that I am focusing on. The same goes with my Civil War writing. If I am doing an academic analysis (which is rare for me) on Chancellorsville w/ Marine instructors, it is presented as an unbiased and statistical study. In my Christian-based bios on Stonewall and Stuart – you can clearly tell that I admire these men and their example. To me it’s the Folklore vs. the Box Score debate. Would I rather write and read about Babe Ruth “calling his shot” (knowing that it’s a potential-legend) or would I prefer to study the Box Score of the game? Which sounds more interesting? So I guess what I am trying to say it that there is a time for history and a time for heritage-history and that most readers know the difference in between.

    If everyone “removed” himself or herself from history – the world would be full of boring textbooks – we’d have no re-enactor’s to hang out with on weekends – no intimate perspectives that were passed down from generation to generation – and people would eventually stop caring about it. I have applauded the public efforts of yourself (Dimitri and others) in holding historians accountable and demanding that a higher-quality of history be achieved (the good – the bad – and the ugly), BUT I also have to defend those who have a passionate, personal, and vested interest in the stories of their forefathers and dedicate themselves to the study and sharing of their heritage. – sorry for such a long comment… I just got done editing 60 pages (on 2 hrs. sleep) for a UK baseball book and I desperately needed to type about something else!

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Michael, — I appreciate your lengthy comment, but to be honest I am not really sure what to say in response. First, I have no idea why you find a need to draw such a sharp distinction between boring academics and enthusiastic heritage folk. I am a historian which means that my primary objective is to better understand and not to admire. If you want to write books about the supposed Christian virtues of Jackson and Lee – both slaveholders – that is your right. Of course people can share stories of their ancestors and revel in the glory of the battlefield. My interests as a historian, however, are centered on trying to comprehend to whatever extent possible the complexity of the past. I am not necessarily interested in celebrating anything.

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  3. Michael Aubrecht

    Kevin, I think you said it best in your closing statement: “My interests as a historian, however, are centered on trying to comprehend to whatever extent possible the complexity of the past. I am not necessarily interested in celebrating anything.” I guess that is the difference between us. I’m interested in both. Preservation AND Celebration.

    Also, I’m not trying to favor either (as I am blessed to get paid to do both.) I am merely saying that there can be a place for both and a balance can be maintained. Some people are vehemently against that. I myself, struggle with that. For instance. I was down at The Museum of The Confederacy on Saturday and one of the women in a tour group openly stated that the museum was obviously biased in it’s presentation of the South… Of course it is! It’s the Museum of The CONFEDERACY. IMO. It is the “heritage” aspect of history that makes it so valuable and precious to individuals.

    Perhaps the term “historian” does not apply to people like me anymore. I guess I like to wear two hats. Like the guys on ESPN. When Mike Greenberg or Dan Patrick are doing their talk-radio shows – its all personal and opinionated. At night, when they do Sportscenter, its just news. I watch both.

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  4. Anonymous

    It may seem a simplistic statement and you’ll have to forgive me for that but you must consider that Heritage is the catalyst for historical learning,without one their cant be the another.

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  5. Kevin Levin

    I agree with your comment up to a point. As much as sentiments of heritage can lead to excellent historical analysis it can just as well stifle it. In the case of the Civil War this is especially true.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

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  6. Samantha Green

    Surely history and heritage work better together, giving an overall picture of things that have gone before. Heritage is needed to help none historians understand the complexity of the subject, as they are able to connect with sight, touch and often emotions. I agree with you that there is a tendency to cherish and affirm those aspects that we connect closest too, but there is also evidence of historians being guilty of the same thing.

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  7. Kevin Levin

    Samantha, — One of the essential differences between history and hertiage (as described in the passages above) is a tendency for the latter to be focused on some kind of emotional or moral connection. On the other hand the kind of analytical historical studies that Novick is referring to attempt to maintain distance from their subject. The goal is not an emotional connection but an understanding of the subject’s complexity. Now I admit that the distinction between the two is perhaps fuzzy at times, but I do think that the passages are instructive.

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