Mythistory in Europe and the United States

AHA Session 74
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Jackson Lears, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
History and Mythistory in Early Modern Europe
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
How Herodotus Saved World History
Suzanne Lynn Marchand, Louisiana State University
20th-Century Anglo-American History and the Modernist Mythic Method”
Michael T. Saler, University of California, Davis
Toward an Intellectual History of Dreams and Dreaming
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Jackson Lears, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Session Abstract

In his 1985 AHA Presidential Address, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians,” William H. McNeill observed that “myth and history are close kin inasmuch as both explain how things got to be the way they are by telling some type of story.” It is largely because of this that modern historical scholarship, from the 19th century up until our own day, has devised a variety of approaches, criteria for evidence, and explanatory schemes to drive a wedge between the two. And yet (in a mood neither celebratory nor alarmist), McNeill reminded our colleagues that the kinship between their reconstructions of the past and those that come by way of myth, fable, and imagination persists. Like myth, history must traffic to some degree in symbols, as it is through and with them that human beings engage in their natural world and with one another. Like myth, history conducts “us”- and "them"-work—seeking to highlight and redraw boundaries of imagined communities past and present.  And like myth, history tends toward narrative and interpretation; strive as professional historians may to work with “facts,” our work is to make calls about which facts matter for creating decipherable patterns and a coherent story.  Because of these ever-present commonalities, McNeill wondered whether we might find the grounds on which we can accept “mythistory,” and perhaps even come to see how being “a truth-seeking mythographer” can be “a high and serious calling.”

This panel will re-examine the historical relations between myth and history in comparative and transhistorical perspective, as well as their continued possibilities for the future of scholarly historical writing. We will explore the crossings and border policing between “myth” and “history” in four historical periods: early modern Europe, 18th-century Europe, mid- 20th-century Anglo-American history, and mid- to late- 20th-century northern transatlantic thought. Of prime concern is how myth has long been used as a resource in historical writing, and how, in turn, the affective and narrative uses of history can engender the production and representation of surprise, wonder, and enchantment.

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