Nick WithamJul 18, 2023
Popularizing the Past
Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America
University of Chicago Press 2023
In this lively and far-reaching text, Nick Witham (University College London) tells the stories of five postwar historians who changed the way ordinary Americans thought about their nation’s 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: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 2023), Witham challenges this interpretation by telling the stories of Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, John Hope Franklin, Howard Zinn, and Gerda Lerner - writers 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. Not just a matter of writing style, popular accessibility was also a product of an author's frame of mind, the editor's skill, and the publisher's marketing acumen, among other factors. Rooted in extensive archival work, Popularizing the Past persuasively demonstrates the cross-influences of popular history writing and American popular culture.
James West is a historian of race, media and business in the modern United States and Black diaspora. Author of "Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett Jr.: Popular Black History in Postwar America" (Illinois, 2020), "A House for the Struggle: The Black Press and the Built Environment in Chicago" (Illinois, 2022), "Our Kind of Historian: The Work and Activism of Lerone Bennett Jr. (Massachusetts, 2022).