RIC History Professor’s Book Examines the Rewritten Past

Erik Christiansen

Erik Christiansen

 

According to Rhode Island College professor and historian Erik Christiansen, most experts on the subject of pure history will tell you there is no such thing.  Rather, each written account of any past event – including war, revolution and presidential campaigns – is told through a particular lens that is influenced by personal interpretation.

There is a difference, however, between scholarly interpretation and calculated rewriting. Christiansen has set out to illustrate how the latter results in Americans being fed misinformation in “Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America.”

The book was published by the University of Wisconsin Press earlier this year and has captured the eye of several book critics, mostly recently Luther Spoehr of “The History News Network.” Spoehr called Christiansen’s work “an informative, well-researched, useful book that casts considerable light on how mid-century Americans encountered history outside the classroom.”

Christiansen’s book focuses on the early Cold War years (post World War II 1940s and 1950s), and organizations that he says “tried to reinvent the past to push their political agendas.”

Christiansen writes specifically about the History Book Club, the Du Pont Corporation’s “Cavalcade of America,’ (a radio and later television anthology drama series), CBS’s “You Are There,” (a television and radio historical education series), the Freedom Train, (an exhibit train proposed by former U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark that toured the country in the late ‘40s to promote U.S. liberty), and the Smithsonian Institutions.

“At the Smithsonian, major corporations donated meaningful artifacts from their own pasts, which the public then viewed and understood as being the most important artifacts from all of American history. A decidedly pro-business version of the past dominated the narrative that visitors experienced and counter narratives about labor or government were completely absent,” he said.

Contradicting those views, Christiansen writes, was CBS’s “You Are There,” which, he said, aired episodes written by former Communists that emphasized the need for collective political action.

“They were able to get their views onto television by using historical examples of those views,” he said. “More obvious contemporary political arguments would not have made it onto network television in the 1950s.”

Christiansen said he sought to write the book, the result of his dissertation as a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, for a public audience and to put the past in context with today’s political climate. Christiansen has been a professor at RIC for three years and was appointed to spearhead the college’s public history program, which seeks to prepare history majors for careers outside academia including in museums, preservation efforts and historical sites.

"I’ve always wanted to teach and what I like about history is I can do anything I want within it,” he said. “History is so broad that I can talk about whatever really peaks my interest.”