OAH Home Donate to OAH Join the OAH

Programs & Resources


Historians Tell Their Stories: Family and Nation during the F.D.R. Years

In today's United States, the conflict between conservatives and progressives, traditionalists and modernists, dominates politics and regularly paralyzes the governing process. The origins of this divide can be traced back to various times in American history, but were particularly resurgent during the periods comprising the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration (the Great Depression, New Deal, and to a lesser degree World War II). Even today, a split remains between members of families for whom Roosevelt personified the devil and those for whom he was a true hero, for whom Eleanor Roosevelt was a traitor to conservative visions of womanhood and those for whom she was an independent and strong individual who served as role model for young professional women. Seen through the dual prism that historians can bring to family history and national history, aspects of the Roosevelt presidency provide spaces in which the meaning of American conservativism and progressivism (with both small "p" and capital "P") can be explored. Through the telling of their family histories during these years what light can historians shed on some of the origins of this rift? Where are the intersections between the work of professional historians and family memories of life during the Roosevelt period?


One inspiration for this project comes from the late historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen's 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Rosenzweig and Thelen sought to uncover what they called the American "popular historical consciousness at its most obvious source – the perspectives of a cross section of Americans." (5) In exploring attitudes towards professional history, they pointed out that Americans they interviewed "placed national events within their familial stories or made national personages into familiar figures in personal narrative.... Popular historical narratives veered off in different directions from the textbook narratives of linear progress associated with capital "H" history. Americans engaged larger pasts on their own terms." (116)


As professional historians themselves are members of the larger American public whose memories and attitudes Rosenzweig and Thelen investigated, this book explores the connections historians create between past and present, family history and the nation's history. How do professional historians tell family stories? What surprises do their tellings reveal? How has their disciplinary perspective been affected by their family history? My hope is that historians will use their knowledge of history to broaden and place into context their family stories. This would illuminate both sides of the historical narrative, both national and familial. It would allow professional writers and teachers of history to share their personal pasts. It would also demonstrate that in spite of Rosenzweig and Thelen's finding that the general public has little taste or even use for professional history, perhaps historians do know how to tell a good story after all.


Proposals of no more than 300 words should be sent to Marie Bolton (Associate Professor of American History, University Clermont Auvergne/CHEC, France) at marie.bolton@uca.fr along with a brief cv by July 1, 2017.

Posted: April 18, 2017
Tagged: Calls for Papers