15
Dec 17

How Memory Alters History: Books on Heroes, Villains, and the American Past

When I heard John McCain invoke Theodore Roosevelt as his “favorite philosopher” during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, it got me thinking: who else has praised Roosevelt as an inspiration? It turns out that countless politicians from both sides of the aisle summon Theodore Roosevelt as a political lodestar, but so do advertising agencies, artists, comedians, and impersonators. Over the last century, Roosevelt has inspired poets, architects, motion picture producers, theatre directors, and presidential biographers. Each representation of Roosevelt differs, not only in the actual depiction, but in the remembrance of the past and the rationale for doing so. Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon examines the portrayals of Roosevelt, the agency of memorializers, and the historical contexts that underpin commemoration. What emerges is a complicated portrait of a many-sided former president, created by successive generations of memorializers. Roosevelt’s legacy is not his own; it belongs to us because through the act of remembering the past, we create it.


Merrill D. Peterson’s work on legacy in American history drew me to this study of Roosevelt. His treatment of Jefferson, Lincoln, and John Brown as figures of changing meaning has defined the field. Since Peterson’s groundbreaking work,Roessner, Amber. Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America (LSU Press, 2014). several other historians have illuminated the prism of American history through memory studies of key individuals. Here are five recent works:

Roessner, Amber. Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America (LSU Press, 2014). Memorialization takes place in all walks of life, not least in sports, where athletes become deities or devils to fanatics. The American pastime has its share of characters and Roessner demonstrates how baseball’s sportswriters created public images of the games’ early heroes and villains. Like presidential biographers, Roessner shows the essential subjectivity of writers.

Greenberg, David. Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004). As for the leading books on presidential images, Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow ranks as a favorite. Eloquently written, and intensively researched, it depicts the changing portrait of Nixon from California populist to global statesman. What Greenberg adeptly explains is how dependent our modern political system rests on image construction and hero-worship.

Lengel, Edward. Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory (Harper, 2011). While Nixon languishes at the bottom of most rankings of American presidents, Washington usually tops the same lists, yet his legacy has undergone as turbulent a time. Editor of Washington’s Papers Edward Lengel sketches the first president’s legacy and agents of commemoration in Inventing George Washington. From the “marble man” almost unblemished in early biographies, to the efforts of debunkers that knocked the Founder’s greatness, Lengel explains that even the most revered American heroes have their detractors and mythmakers.

Cook, Robert. Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (LSU Press, 2011). This book provided some inspiration around anniversaries. His examination of the Civil War centennial in the 1960s, during the ongoing civil rights movement, demonstrates the power of the present on the historical past.

Carwardine, Richard and Jay Sexton. Global Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2011). Finally, American history exists in a wider, global context and the essays in Global Lincoln show the rail-splitter from an international perspective. In the twentieth century, Lincoln had meaning for Latin Americans, Russians, and Irish people, reminding us that American narratives of leadership go far beyond its own shores.


Michael Patrick Cullinane is a reader in modern U.S. history at Roehampton University, London, and the author of Liberty and American Anti-Imperialism, 1898–1909, and coauthor of The Open Door Era: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Twentieth Century.

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