By Edward T. Linenthal
October is National Arts and Humanities Month. It is our nation’s largest celebration of the arts and humanities and a time to critically reflect on the role the arts and humanities play in our lives. For me, that’s meant thinking about history and our ever-changing relationship to the past.
I used to joke with my students at Indiana University that when I became “King of the World,” I would decree that everyone who used the dismissive phrase, “Well, that’s just revisionist history,” would learn that all historical work is, in one way or another, revisionist, that it is not, by definition, a sure indicator of “bad” history.
We accept change in other areas of life. I doubt anyone recoils in horror and accuses their physician of being a “medical revisionist” when they use the latest medical marvel in treatment. Is the annual fascination with new cars troubling evidence of “automobile revisionism”? Why are historians solely burdened with the negative baggage implied by the term? Would you think your money for college well-spent if a professor in a history class declined to include research from previously-closed archives that opened after the fall of the USSR because that might lead to a revision of our understanding of certain aspects of the Holocaust?
Historians revise our understanding of the Holocaust and every other person, event, period, of the past. Such revisions will be subject to the rigors of peer review that is the gauntlet of historical argument. Holocaust denial is not revision. It is denial! It is an expression of the hatred of Jews and an attempt to consign the Holocaust to oblivion.
“Ever-changing stories situated in an ever-changing historical landscape invite us to engage with a more vibrant past.”Edward T. Linenthal
So, what is historical revision? In his recent book, The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History is Revisionist History, James M. Banner, Jr. offers a helpful definition: “Any challenge to existing interpretations of any aspect of the past brought about by new evidence, new arguments, new perspectives, or new methods.”
Two books on the Civil War are ideal examples of the use of these categories. Margaret S. Creighton’s The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History, brings into focus previously obscure experiences of civilian women and African Americans. Creighton argues that a focus on women’s experience changes the chronology from “three days’ worth of killing to at least three months’ worth of recovery and ministration.” For African American Pennsylvanians, the battle was both a “momentary explosion in 1863 and the climax of decades of threats from below the Mason-Dixon line. […] It is a battle all about, utterly about, freedom.”
Mark M. Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War is also revisionist history at its finest, allowing readers to appreciate the power of the senses for residents of the past. The war, Smith writes, would “injure and pollute eyes, subjecting them to new, confusing sights; expose ears to sounds discordant and inhuman; bombard noses with odors rank, fetid, and impure; treat skin with a new, brutal contempt; and initiate radical changes in taste.”
As National Arts and Humanities Month draws to a close, I encourage you to embark on your own journey of reflection on the role of the humanities in our lives. Ever-changing stories situated in an ever-changing historical landscape invite us to engage with a more vibrant past. True, we are not responsible for the worlds of the past. We are, however, responsible for how we choose to remember those worlds and those who lived in them. We can rely on the best of historical revisionism to help us in that journey.
Edward T. Linenthal is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University and former editor of the Journal of American History. He is a member of the Virginia Humanities Board of Directors.