How Should History Make Us Feel?

Michael A. Blaakman

In the two years since David McCullough published The Pioneers, a centurieslong culture war over American history has been reenergized with partisan rancor. Mirroring the broader polarization of U.S. political culture, much of the public discourse about early America, and about what history is ultimately for, has been reduced to a choice between two foundational years: 1619 and 1776.

The backlash to the New York Times’s 1619 Project—a journalistic initiative that places slavery, its legacies, and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of U.S. history—culminated in January 2021, with the release of The 1776 Report. Right-wing commentators had widely denounced The 1619 Project as an attempt to make white Americans feel bad. Former president Donald Trump, for instance, condemned it as part of a “left-wing cultural revolution” designed “to make students ashamed of their own history.” Trump appointed a commission to promote what he called “patriotic education,” an “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling” approach to American history. The commission’s report not only downplayed the significance of slavery, but also advanced deceitful interpretations of a slew of other topics and almost entirely ignored women’s history, Black history, and Native American history. In a self-congratulatory tone, it focused mainly on hero worship of the founding fathers. This was snowflake history—history designed to inspire, delight, or comfort, while sheltering its imagined audience from challenging questions about the past. Scrubbed from the White House website within hours of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, The 1776 Report nevertheless embodied an idea that is not going away anytime soon: that history’s purpose is to make people feel good.

The Pioneers is a work of feel-good history. McCullough, a registered independent who has criticized Trump, might well object to this classification. And to be fair, the book is not a work of right-wing propaganda. Nevertheless, it is consistent with The 1776 Report in that it is designed to indulge readers in a nostalgic, uplifting, and (as the book’s subtitle advertises) “heroic story”—in this case, the story of how white settlers invaded the Ohio country and supplanted Indigenous societies with their own. Like all feel-good history, The Pioneers accomplishes its rosy portrayal only through serious acts of omission. McCullough draws on a limited set of historical documents, neglects crucial historical contexts, and overlooks the discoveries of recent scholarship related to his topic. He fully identifies with his protagonists, the settlers, and mostly ignores other historical perspectives. These choices may make readers feel good, but they also make for bad history.

Feel-good history depends on a clear and exclusive sense of its own audience. The 1776 Report was a piece of red meat that the Trump administration, in its waning weeks, tossed to its far-right base. The Pioneers’ intended readership is defined more by gender and race than by party. Released just before Father’s Day, the book assumes a male audience (as Honor Sachs points out), and it would not be a feel-good history for Black or Indigenous readers of any gender. Of course, balkanized audiences are not solely a problem of feel-good history; they’re a fact of any culture war. Conservative attacks on The 1619 Project imply that its aim is to provoke guilt among white Americans and to indoctrinate schoolchildren. But I suspect most of the people who have actually read The 1619 Project are part of the Times’s preexisting readership, which skews toward liberal adults who were already amenable to its assertive conclusions.

1619, 1776, and The Pioneers all center on the origins and character of the nation. Stories such as these carry a lot of baggage. They implicate a primary and deeply political category of their reader’s personal identity, in ways that do not bear as heavily on biographies, microhistories, and global histories, at least not by definition. Is it inevitable that any nation-centered history will necessarily alienate whole constituencies, even within the nation itself? The optimist in me would like to think it’s not, because it seems more vital than ever for scholars of the early republic to help broad audiences understand themselves and the nation in historical context. As the United States’ semiquincentennial approaches, we will be called on increasingly to do so.

The challenge for public-facing scholarship, I think, is to bridge these audiences—to build readerships that are not preemptively delimited by the terms of the history culture war, and to find ways to engage them with questions, evidence, and interpretations that may defy their preconceptions. In this, I think scholars do have something to learn from McCullough. Writers who set out to make readers feel good may gain large audiences, but they almost always end up writing poor history. For most historians, meanwhile, the primary goal is not to make us feel one way or another, but to help us think: to understand prior worlds, to discover why events unfolded the way they did, and to explain how all of it has shaped the present. And yet it seems clear, from McCullough’s example, that a winning recipe for reaching broader audiences is to write narrative history that appeals to a reader’s emotions.

One way out of the culture war’s trap may be to write histories that make readers feel the joys (and admonitions) of historical research—such as this scribble found in Box 2 of the Phelps and Gorham Papers, New York State Library.

One possibility for escaping the culture war’s trap may be to make historical methods more transparent by foregrounding them as part of the narrative itself. What would it look like for more public-facing scholarship to center the historian, as sleuth and storyteller, alongside the history? To welcome readers with a question, or a quest, rather than thwacking them over the head with an argument from page one? To create room within our prose for them to modify or disagree with our conclusions? Perhaps one way for us to confront the twenty-first-century crisis of historical truth is to lift the professional veil, so to speak, writing in a way that encourages readers to accompany us through the work that, to our eyes, is so plainly absent from The Pioneers: the humble process of finding a wide array of sources, scrutinizing their meaning in historical context, and piecing them together to build interpretations.

. . . I spent four sweltering days rummaging through the Northumberland County courthouse before I found the deposition that answered one question and sparked a dozen more . . .

. . . Though we culled the newspapers for weeks, my student and I finally realized we would never be able to piece together all parts of the story. But as best as we are able to know, this is how it goes . . .

. . . I had read her final letter a dozen times, and it broke my heart each time. But not until I visited the spot where she wrote it did I truly understand . . .

There is drama in historical research, and scholars could do more to capture and self-consciously share it. Doing so might help us win bigger audiences by cultivating neither guilt nor pride but rather a different register of feeling: curiosity, bafflement, passion, suspense, grief, serendipity, frustration, humor, epiphany, and the thrill of archival discovery. In truth, this idea is not new; excellent models already exist. And while I am not suggesting that most (much less all) public-facing scholarship should make the historian and their emotional experience part of the story, it does seem like something we could use more of—particularly in histories that seek to say something about national origins and character, and that strive to do more than preach to the choir. In an era of declining support for history departments and history education, this approach might even help us advocate for the value of history as a craft that is distinct from what readers encounter in books like The Pioneers, which merely tell feel-good tales about the past.

11 June 2021

About the Author

Michael A. Blaakman is assistant professor of history at Princeton University.

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