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History and Memory in John Bodnar's "Remaking America"

Updated on May 29, 2012

John Bodnar’s Remaking America is an interesting look on how history is created for the general public, and how it is remembered by different groups. Although the book centers around events concerning the United States, it is a universal theme that could easily be applied to multiple countries, and all the different minority groups within those countries. The book is a slow read, mostly due to its constant jumping from group to group in seemingly unrelated events. In general, Remaking America is written chronologically, taking each ethnic group in question during specific events of the past to try to form a cohesive foundation and support for the thesis presented in the book. While the book does not focus on the bombing of Hiroshima itself as the essays within Hogan’s Hiroshima in History and Memory, Bodnar’s approach gives the reader a good foundation for the differing viewpoints that are presented in regards to the Hiroshima event- how it is seen and remembered by Japan, American, and those citizens who were caught in-between both countries in fate and loyalty. Bodnar explains how the controversy of the Vietnam Memorial is also seen in such a light- that minorities within American held viewpoints of the memorial that often conflicted. Do they honor the veterans and soldiers who fought and served in Vietnam at the risk of seeming as if the civilians and Vietnamese who died were unimportant? Such is the same controversy that surrounds Hiroshima, and many other events in America’s past.

It is interesting how a single event can be remembered in so many different ways, and Bodnar relates this to the reader quite well, telling us that ethnic groups and minorities often had specific interests, most of which did not always conform with what was held as the “official” history of the nation. After all, public memory is constructed, and it is subject to change and alteration, as Bodnar states. Using Hiroshima and Emperor Hirohito as examples, any student of history, American or not, can see how public history is shaped by the role of the government. Delving further into Bodnar’s chronology, interestingly enough he splits history and memory into before World War II and after World War II, further showing how significant the bomb truly was and how it makes such a great example for his argument. As I said, however, his book does not focus on Hiroshima nor does it speak of it in much detail- rather it focuses on the theory behind how the present remembers the past. In Remaking America, it is stated that prior to WWII, public memory was dominated by contests and controversies between ordinary people, who drew upon their own local, and personal, memories to interpret massive change. After WWII, this shifted greatly. While patriotism remained quite important, generally it remained in the hands of those with the power to shape it- leaders and persons in positions of authority. Before the second World War, people created their own history, but not so much afterwards.

Sam Walker’s second essay in Hiroshima in History and Memory, compiled by Michael Hogan, also goes a great deal into collective memory, and even quotes Bodnar at one point, but he brings up a point that Bodnar does not, stating that current textbooks are the primary source for misleading history and forcing a written past upon those who cannot draw from their own experiences. Remaking America really helps the reader to understand that when an overwhelming number of people, or a small group in power, believe or want others to believe a certain idea, it is easy enough to pass that idea along. Likewise, Lauren’s presentation showed how history remembers Emperor Hirohito, depending on when, and where, history is being remembered.

There is a lot to be learned from the use of public history and collective memory, as is evident through Bodnar and Walker, as well as many other authors of history. History is often written by the winners of war, and so future generations will always have a biased view of the losers. Both of these books are wonderful reads for any student of collective history and memory. While Hogan's book focuses on controversy and memory concerning Hiroshima and events relative to WWII, it is a great example of how different points of view work to shape common history.

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