When Historical Interpretation Becomes Historical Memory

This morning I fired off this short tweet thread after re-reading for the upteenth time a section of David Blight’s book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. I can’t think of another book in my area of interest that I have returned to so often.

Perhaps at some point I will follow up with some more thoughts along this line.

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7 comments… add one
  • Christy S. Coleman Apr 5, 2017 @ 5:39

    Couldn’t agree more! David’s work has forced us all to rethink-as any good book should. Coupled with Foner’s work on Reconstruction, looking at our national trajectory makes so much sense.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2017 @ 5:44

      Hi Christy,

      I couldn’t agree more, but I also wonder if we should be concerned when a historical interpretation becomes so entrenched that it goes unquestioned in popular culture. Blight does offer a more nuanced view of our “national trajectory” but some of his central assumptions have been challenged by historians such as Caroline Janney.

      • Rob Wick Apr 5, 2017 @ 20:36


        I don’t mean this as a criticism of your point but when you say “I also wonder if we should be concerned when a historical interpretation becomes so entrenched that it goes unquestioned in popular culture” I wonder exactly how you define “popular culture.” Do you mean non-academic Civil War “buffs” who read generally for pleasure and usually focus more on military studies as opposed to social and political questions? Because if by “popular culture” you mean the average citizen at large (even one with average or above-average literacy), I have to question do they 1) know who David Blight is and 2) really care about historiographical questions? If you are talking about the non-academic “buff” I also have to wonder at their interest level in something so esoteric and more at home in an academic setting. Again, this isn’t meant as a criticism but more as a point of inquiry.


        • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2017 @ 2:06

          Hi Rob,

          Thanks for the comment. I should have been more precise, but for now I am simply thinking of examples that fall outside of academic circles. A few recent documentaries come to mind as well as media coverage of events through the sesquicentennial. You can also find this interpretation in places like the Atlantic, Harpers, the New Yorker etc. where Blight has filtered down into.

  • M.D. Blough Apr 5, 2017 @ 5:23

    I’ve met David Blight and heard him talk on multiple occasions. I don’t think he ever intended (and I know you’re not arguing that he did) it to be the definitive work but, instead, to begin inquiry and to cause us to examine what we were taught. I remember when “Glory” came out being stunned at the number of people who were totally surprised that Black men fought to save the Union and in very large numbers.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2017 @ 6:44

      I agree. Blight is too good of a scholar to think that he or any historian ever has the last word. In fact, Brian Jordan (a recent Ph.D student of Blight’s) is a wonderful example of his approach to new scholarship. A good chunk of Brian’s dissertation challenged some of the assumptions in Blight’s book, which became the basis of a very good book in its own right and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

  • Patrick Young Apr 5, 2017 @ 5:22

    How has David Blight responded to some of the newer studies that complicate the notion of “Reconciliation”?

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