Series Blog

From the Times to the Tomes: History Evolving

In Phillip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral he remarks of history, “People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

It’s a notion that is quite apropos to the “creation” of history, as newscasters often tell their listeners with bated breath that “we’re witnessing history,” or “we’re a part of history,” here doing this thing or another, breaking this record, passing this legislation. But what is written down immediately about a subject and what goes into the historical record years later, what is enshrined in our high school history books, a pseudo base history standard in our country, can be drastically different, as both depictions are subject to the inescapable subjectivity of authorship, philosophical, political and scientific change. 

For example, when Dr. Walter Freeman (featured in American Experience’s The Lobotomist) first “made history” in 1936 by presiding over the first full-frontal lobotomy with surgeon James Watts, the Chicago Tribune hailed Freeman in an article entitled “Cure Wildness by Operation on Imagination" and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remarked that “the Doctor has taken a bedridden hypochondriac and made her into a good housekeeper. He has dried away tears, eased the sense of frustration, eliminated worry over trifles and the fear of imaginary ills. Operating upon a biting and scratching monkey, he made him an affectionate pet.” 

Today however, in history textbooks, popular culture, science and just about any recorded testament of its effects, lobotomy is considered one of the most barbaric examples of science gone wrong, an unfortunate side step akin to phrenology in our understanding of the human psyche and the functions of the brain. 

As such, in this running blog feature, I’ll be looking at historical subjects as they were recorded in contemporary news accounts and compare them to our own received popular history: the ever present circa 2002 AP History textbook I keep in my house as a reminder of my fun times in AP US History, along with other ‘mainstream history’ sources and retrospective news features. So keep an eye out for my latest piece on our evolving history!

Sean ClearySean Cleary is a blogger for Inside AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and a member of the Communications team, where he also assembles AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s weekly newsletter. Sean will be writing a series comparing news articles from important events in US history to present-day historical opinion.