The value of cultural history

I read a lot these days. Some of the books I read are really enjoyable. Others are not. In one of my classes, we’re reading both traditional academic histories of U.S. – Asian relations and interpretations of the cultural impact of those relations. The book I’m currently reading (for next Wednesday’s class) was actually written by a Literature professor rather than a historian. We’ve already encountered one such book in this class, and it was, shall we say, only sometimes relevant. This book is interested in interpreting “middlebrow” U.S. culture’s fascination with Asia in the 40s, 50s, and 60s through the work of such people as Rodgers and Hammerstein, James Michener, and others. From what I can tell so far, it’s going to be an interesting book.

I used to kind of despise cultural history. My first real introduction to history, through my grandfather’s influence, was “great man” history. He loved reading about Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, and Lee, about Patton, Churchill, and Stalin, and about how these men shaped the world. I was interested in the process of foreign relations, especially the history (and fiction) of the CIA, as well as the great men of the Revolutionary generation (like Jefferson, the Adamses, and Washington). When I started studying history at the college level, I instinctually continued this trend of focusing on elites and policy-makers. Foreign policy lends itself to this kind of examination, as those relations tend to be the most insularly determined. By that I mean they are the least controlled by domestic politics, though I eventually found out that this was not true in the Early Republic.

What I came to realize, however, was that the ethics of diplomacy and the foundations of foreign policy were based in how the United States saw itself in the world. In the Early Republic, we were struggling to keep our independence safe from Europe and clinging to the edge of a vast continent while constantly and violently conflicting with Native Americans. By the late 1800s we were getting closer to breaking onto the world stage and taking our place as a world power. By 1945 we were the strongest nation in the world and exporting our culture around the globe. The nation saw itself differently in each of these phases (and these are just three simple examples), and these differences can be described as cultural in a broad sense.

I guess my point is that understanding how the nation saw itself at various times (and not just how the elites saw it) is very valuable. Rather than disdaining cultural history, I am now convinced it plays an important role in explaining change over time.

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