Wide-ranging observations on the ways we write and interpret history, and why it matters, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning...


THE HISTORICAL PRESENT: The Uses and Abuses of the Past

Wide-ranging observations on the ways we write and interpret history, and why it matters, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist. In these collected pieces, Washington Post Writers Group veteran and journalism professor Yoder (Washington and Lee Univ.) argues that historical consciousness ""is in actuality the only reliable kind of consciousness we have."" His application of this theory to diverse phenomena is consistently edifying, though as befits a newspaper columnist he tackles subjects on which there is little unanimity. Yoder is sharpest on the Constitution and on presidential destiny, assessment, and reputation. He offers firm opinions on Yalta, and on Hiroshima in light of the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit controversy at the Smithsonian, embracing a traditional view, that the bomb was used to save lives and hasten the end of the war. In the book's last section Yoder extends his focus beyond the subject categories of presidential, constitutional, and nationalist issues to place contemporary novels like E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and films such as Oliver Stone's JFK and Spike Lee's Malcolm X under scrutiny. The problem with ""docudrama,"" as he calls such works (their artistic value notwithstanding), is that, simply put, its fabrication of the past provides readers and moviegoers with a version of that they are increasingly likely to mistake as ""objective"" history. Most telling is the author's dead-on conclusion that today's historians reflect a deepening cynicism born of the deceptions of the Vietnam era, which points to a larger truth: that ""it should always be recalled that the motives and moods of historians are as essential to the understanding of the history they write as the motives and moods they attribute to the actors they write about."" As Yoder's subtitle suggests, history is time's rich endowment to the present; in failing to put it to best advantage, we suffer.

Pub Date: July 1, 1997


Page Count: 192

Publisher: Univ. Press of Mississippi

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1997