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Popularizing the Past

Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America

Popularizing the Past

Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America

Popularizing the Past tells the stories of five postwar historians who changed the way ordinary Americans thought about their nation’s history.
What’s the matter with history? For decades, critics of the discipline have argued that the historical profession is dominated by scholars unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to write for the public. In Popularizing the Past, Nick Witham challenges this interpretation by telling the stories of five historians—Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, John Hope Franklin, Howard Zinn, and Gerda Lerner—who, in the decades after World War II, published widely read books of national history.
Witham compellingly argues that we should understand historians’ efforts to engage with the reading public as a vital part of their postwar identity and mission. He shows how the lives and writings of these five authors were fundamentally shaped by their desire to write histories that captivated both scholars and the elusive general reader. He also reveals how these authors’ efforts could not have succeeded without a publishing industry and a reading public hungry to engage with the cutting-edge ideas then emerging from American universities. As Witham’s book makes clear, before we can properly understand the heated controversies about American history so prominent in today’s political culture, we must first understand the postwar effort to popularize the past.

240 pages | 6 x 9

History: American History, History of Ideas


"I am very taken with Nick Witham’s illuminating book and hope that all practicing and aspiring US historians read it. Drawing on careful research and writing in sparkling prose that rivals his subjects', Witham examines how five prominent postwar historians navigated the challenges and rewards of scripting national narratives for audiences beyond the academy. For anyone interested in crafting intellectually robust, readable, and relevant scholarship, Popularizing the Past is essential reading."

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche

A fascinating exploration of American historians searching for their publics and seeking to balance empirical depth and literary flair, scholarship and fame, objectivity and activism. Nick Witham's book is the most probing examination of these matters that I have read. Essential for understanding the importance and perils of writing popular history."

Gary Gerstle, author of The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order

"Those dispirited by today's skirmishes over the American past should seek out Nick Witham’s wonderful book on postwar history writing. His portrait of prominent scholars who wrote for the public offers a fresh take on popularization, presentism, and politicization—even as it underscores the essential work of histories that educate and engross readers."

Sarah E. Igo, author of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Table of Contents

Introduction What’s the Matter with History? The Problem of Popularity in Postwar American Historical Writing

Part I Popular History and General Readers
1 Richard Hofstadter: Popular History and the Contradictions of Consensus
2 Daniel Boorstin: Popular History between Liberalism and Conservatism

Part II: Popular History and Activist Readers
3 John Hope Franklin: The Racial Politics of Popular History
4 Howard Zinn: Popular History as Controversy
5 Gerda Lerner: The Struggle for a Popular Women’s History
Conclusion The Legacies of Postwar Popular History
Archival Abbreviations 

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