Popularizing the Past: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America (Paperback)
Popularizing the Past tells the stories of five postwar historians who changed the way ordinary Americans thought about their nation’s history.
What’s the matter with history? For decades, critics of the discipline have argued that the historical profession is dominated by scholars unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to write for the public. In Popularizing the Past, Nick Witham challenges this interpretation by telling the stories of five historians—Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, John Hope Franklin, Howard Zinn, and Gerda Lerner—who, in the decades after World War II, published widely read books of national history.
Witham compellingly argues that we should understand historians’ efforts to engage with the reading public as a vital part of their postwar identity and mission. He shows how the lives and writings of these five authors were fundamentally shaped by their desire to write histories that captivated both scholars and the elusive general reader. He also reveals how these authors’ efforts could not have succeeded without a publishing industry and a reading public hungry to engage with the cutting-edge ideas then emerging from American universities. As Witham’s book makes clear, before we can properly understand the heated controversies about American history so prominent in today’s political culture, we must first understand the postwar effort to popularize the past.
About the Author
Nick Witham is associate professor of United States history and head of department at the Institute of the Americas at University College London. He is the author of The Cultural Left and the Reagan Era: U.S. Protest and Central American Revolution.
"Astute, informative, and skillfully researched, Witham’s thought-provoking analysis will appeal to historians (and aspiring historians) who want a better grasp on the challenges and opportunities of history as a profession and the business of popular-history books."
— Library Journal
"In his new book Popularizing the Past, historian Nick Witham sheds light on five particularly interesting historians’ writing and publishing strategies during the mid-to-late twentieth century . . . Witham’s readings of these five figures offer sensitive analysis and point to the key questions about politics and publishing."
— Boston Review
"I am very taken with Nick Witham’s illuminating book and hope that all practicing and aspiring US historians read it. Drawing on careful research and writing in sparkling prose that rivals his subjects', Witham examines how five prominent postwar historians navigated the challenges and rewards of scripting national narratives for audiences beyond the academy. For anyone interested in crafting intellectually robust, readable, and relevant scholarship, Popularizing the Past is essential reading."
— Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche
"A fascinating exploration of American historians searching for their publics and seeking to balance empirical depth and literary flair, scholarship and fame, objectivity and activism. Nick Witham's book is the most probing examination of these matters that I have read. Essential for understanding the importance and perils of writing popular history."
— Gary Gerstle, author of The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order
"Those dispirited by today's skirmishes over the American past should seek out Nick Witham’s wonderful book on postwar history writing. His portrait of prominent scholars who wrote for the public offers a fresh take on popularization, presentism, and politicization—even as it underscores the essential work of histories that educate and engross readers."
— Sarah E. Igo, author of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America
"The argument of Witham’s book is that the audience for popular historical nonfiction that explains America to itself has always been a diverse one, made up of various types of readers. The imagined past, when an idealised American reader relaxed by the fireside with a sturdy tome written by a credentialed academic, is, largely speaking, a fiction…The best parts of Popularizing the Past are the archival discoveries of letters from readers, and between editors and writers, showing the nitty-gritty of how this sausage got made – and eaten."
— History Today
"[An] engaging, instructive account of the efforts by five postwar American academic historians – and, importantly, their editors and publishers – to reach a broader, non-scholarly audience with their work . . . . If historians wish to produce work that resonates with ordinary readers while being taken seriously by fellow specialists, it can be done. And for guidance on how to do it they could do worse than look to those who, three-quarters of a century ago, set about ‘popularizing the past.'"
— Fredrik Logevall