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Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century.

Skillfully using the recent debate over the design and building of the Vietnam War Memorial to draw readers into his analysis of commemorations, John Bodnar explores the concept of public memory through "official and vernacular cultural expressions." By scouring arcane accounts of local, state, and national historical celebrations, he has uncovered a struggle between conflicting forces that have shaped America's public memory. Vernacular interests, representing diverse and usually marginalized groups, changed as America's social structure evolved, while official culture reflected the ideas of leaders and authorities at all levels of society. Within these broad groups, Bodnar identifies other divisive tensions in American society. Conflicts between urban and rural dwellers, native and ethnic groups, patriotic and leisure-oriented celebrations, and national and local goals reverberate throughout his analysis. Further, Bodnar demonstrates that the history of public commemorations reflected America's changing power structure.

Examining this conflict between the vernacular and official past, Bodnar finds that ascendancy of either interpretation depended on contemporary social and political issues. From the period after the American Revolution until the 1830s, concerns for nation-building prompted the celebration of national patriotic themes. In the 1830s, however, industrial expansion created class and regional differences that helped to popularize humble pioneers and yeomen. National themes reemerged with the Civil War as preservation and then reunification of the Union dominated national attention. Within this national fervor, however, existed the reality of war. With 600,000 casualties, the war touched Americans on a personal level and created a ground swell of vernacular commemorations.

Bodnar's study reveals that the planning and implementation of commemorations mirrored the growing complexity of American life. Increasingly the rising middle class managed commemorative events in the mid-nineteenth century and business leaders glorified patriotic ideals that had been important in their rise to power. America's growing pluralism increased social tensions and official culture invoked the image of a strong nation-state to act as social mediator. This interpretation of the nation's past, however, exacerbated vernacular fears of urban and industrial growth. Here Bodnar stresses the growing class tensions that infiltrated patriotic celebrations and argues that popular expressions of the past emphasized images of local founders and events.

In the early twentieth century, American war efforts created a powerful nation-state and established a pattern of strong official interpretations of the past. Alliances among government officials, business leaders, and professionals promoted a progressive history of America's march to greatness, while themes of nativism and patriotism dominated national celebrations. Ethnic groups, led by an assimilating middle class, stressed ethnic identity within the context of national ideals. Vernacular themes briefly appeared in the inter-war period, but the Great Depression forced the government to reassert official culture. In a fascinating chapter Bodnar analyzes the expanded role of the National Park Service in managing historic sites and the federal government's increased involvement in official interpretations of history. Dominance of official over vernacular historical interpretations continued during the crises of World War II and the Cold War.

Bodnar's treatment of the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s focuses on celebrations of the Civil War Centennial and the American Revolution Bicentennial, but his dichotomous model seems less successful for this period. While official interpretations of the past encouraged national themes, the fractious nature of American society created a vernacular culture that was not easily accommodated. Useful to understanding the complexity of historical celebrations and commemorations during this period would be an analysis of the unprecedented popular participation in local historical societies and historic preservation movements. These efforts forged a union of official and vernacular culture as people demanded that the history of all groups be remembered and preserved.
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Author:Zoidis, Marilyn
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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