cover image WHO OWNS HISTORY? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World

WHO OWNS HISTORY? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World

Eric Foner, . . Hill & Wang, $24 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-8090-9704-3

In this series of addresses and essays, many in print for the first time, one of America's preeminent historians does his profession proud. After discussing his own life history—beginning with a New York leftist Jewish childhood, during which his family "discuss[ed] the intricacies of international relations and domestic politics over the dinner table"—Foner (The Story of American Freedom), a professor at Columbia University, writes with erudition and clarity on a variety of historical subjects. At his best, he critically assesses the way American history and historians intersect. In an address he gave last year as president of the American Historical Association, he exhorted his colleagues to examine American history in an international context: "In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world." His critique of Ken Burns's Civil War documentary shows how the much-acclaimed series—by depicting the war as a fight between Northern and Southern whites and by essentially excluding the Reconstruction, one of Foner's own specialties—exhibits some of the same failings that have plagued historians of the era (which Foner calls "the most controversial and misunderstood era in our nation's history"). Other strong essays include a lecture on blacks and the U.S. Constitution and an analysis of the way historians have looked at socialism in the United States. The essays on history in South Africa and Russia, while thought-provoking, feel a bit dated (they were written in the mid-1990s). But as whole, these writings help to debunk the idea that history is irrelevant in the 21st century. (Apr.)