The ever-changing past Why all history is revisionist history

James M. Banner, 1935-

Book - 2021

History is not, and has never been, inert, certain, merely factual, and beyond reinterpretation. Taking readers from Thucydides to the origin of the French Revolution to the Civil War and beyond, James M. Banner, Jr.. explores what historians do and why they do it. Banner shows why historical knowledge is unlikely ever to be unchanging, why history as a branch of knowledge is always a search for meaning and a constant source of argument, and why history is so essential to individuals' awareness of their location in the world and to every group and nation's sense of identity and destiny. He explains why all historians are revisionists while they seek to more fully understand the past, and how they always bring their distinct minds,... dispositions, perspectives, and purposes to bear on the subjects they study.

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New Haven : Yale University Press [2021]
Main Author
James M. Banner, 1935- (author)
Physical Description
xi, 284 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Revisions Without End: The Origins of the American Civil War
  • 2. The Ancient Origins of Revisionist History
  • 3. Revisionist History in the Modern Era
  • 4. Varieties of Revisionist History
  • 5. Some Fruits of Revisionist History
  • 6. History and Objectivity
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Banner's central contention is undeniable: although works on historiography abound, very few have delved deeply into either the subject or history of revisionism. This book masterfully addresses these lacunae and will become a modern starting point for future discussions of this topic. An early chapter on the shifting interpretations regarding the causes of the American Civil War demonstrates that understanding both the historian and her/his/their time is crucial for uncovering the origins, reception, and significance of a new outlook. Using the metaphor of geological strata, revisionism is seen as a layer, both dependent on what came before as well as something new and different (and, ultimately, superseded). This is followed by two chapters that survey major revisions of Western historical understanding (classical, Christian, Marxist, and modern) and a chapter that undertakes a basic typology of revision (e.g., philosophical, conceptual, evidence-based, method-driven). An exploration of the changing perspectives on the French Revolution, as well as on how museologists, historians, and the public disagreed over what to include in the display of the Enola Gay in the National Air and Space Museum, wonderfully illustrates how revisionism reflects and revises the present. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers through faculty. --Robert T. Ingoglia, St.Thomas Aquinas College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A rallying cry in favor of historians who, revisiting past subjects, change their minds. All history responsibly practiced, writes Banner--a former professor at Princeton and founder of the National History Center of the American Historical Association--is properly revisionist, acknowledging that "historians' understanding of major subjects have almost never stood still." That understanding runs athwart of some readers and interpreters of history--e.g., Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for one, who remarked that he was going to spend a summer reading about the history of slavery, but "not the 'revisionists.' " It is the revisionists, however, who have given us the modern and prevailing view that the Civil War was fought less over states' rights than over slavery. That view morphed through the "Lost Cause" theories of the Southern agrarians, which "were by no means out of keeping with the general conservative intellectual mood of much of the country," and the anti-capitalist leanings of Charles and Mary Beard, whose book, The Rise of American Civilization, was required reading a century ago. Historians today give primacy to slavery while allowing "many other, less fundamental immediate triggers of the conflict" to the roster. Other topics of revisionist dissection include the French Revolution, which has been attributed to "monarchical despotism" and "an aroused working class" alike; and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, viewed as both necessary in saving the lives of American soldiers and ending World War II and as a horrific and racist act that is essentially indefensible. With a nod to the distant past, Banner contrasts the historiographic leanings of Herodotus and Thucydides, the former a storyteller who crafted grand moral tales about the struggle between Eastern tyranny and Western democracy, the latter "someone caught up in the events he sought to understand." In clear, occasionally dry prose, Banner, who has been teaching and writing history for more than five decades, capably defends a method that turns on "fidelity to fact and independence of judgment." Rewarding reading for serious students of history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.