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A historian with a broad view of American culture's movers and shapers

Making History Matter

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Robert Dawidoff

"I would treasure this book for its brilliant essays on music and the lessons against intolerance alone, but there is such wisdom to glean from its pages that I will be reading it again and again for years to come."
Andrea Marcovicci, Singer/Actress

This collection of Robert Dawidoff's essays and journalism is peopled by the likes of the Founding Fathers, Fred Astaire, Henry and William James, Sophie Tucker, Trent Lott, and Cole Porter. Drawing together this unlikely cast of characters, Dawidoff probes into the role of outsider groups as well as intellectual and political elites in the formation of American culture.

As a scholar of intellectual and cultural history, Dawidoff takes the stance that historians ought to take an active role in our democratic culture, informing and participating in public discourse. He argues for a broad reach when it comes to cultural expression, resisting the polarization of formal intellectual history and folk or commercial popular culture. In his view and in his book, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Katharine Hepburn are equally worthy topics for a historian's consideration, providing that they are treated with equal seriousness of purpose and analytic rigor. In "The Gay Nineties" section that closes the book, he traces key events in the continual struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights and takes on such unresolved issues as safer sex, needle exchange programs to control HIV transmission, and the public controversy around the portrayal of gay and lesbian television characters.

Divided into sections that deal with the patriarchs of American political and intellectual culture, expressive culture, and a historian's public voice, this book is a model of engaged and engaging writing. Accessible and witty, Making History Matter will appeal to general and academic readers interested in American history as well as gay and lesbian political and cultural issues.

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Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Part I (pdf).

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Reviews

"Katharine Hepburn, Ben Franklin, Fred Astaire, Thomas Jefferson, Sophie Tucker, George Santayana, Irving Berlin—surely unlikely companions, past or present. Unless they are journeying with Robert Dawidoff, an historian of remarkable range and imagination. Making History Matter provokes, startles, and delights. Page after page Dawidoff reminds me what inspired me to become an historian."
Mary Kelley, Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor, Dartmouth College

"Admirers of Robert Dawidoff's work know the elegance and revelation in his readings of the fate of high intellect in our democracy. In his new book, that fate is shown to be enacted through a perpetually astonishing range of encounters of the ordinary with the extraordinary, the low-down with the high-hat, each inviting and liberating the other's responsiveness. Like good philosophy, this work lets you know what you thought you did not know and shows you how to treasure what your thought you need not know."
Stanley Cavell, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, Harvard University

"I know of no book more aptly titled than Making History Matter. In these exhilarating essays, Robert Dawidoff manages to make history come wholly alive and he is equally at home with Sophie Tucker and Fred Astaire as with Jefferson, Santayana, and the brothers Henry and William James. Whether writing about the role of needle exchanges in the dissemination of AIDS, or spoofing some of the deficiencies of academic Cultural Studies, Dawidoff is consistently sprightly, engaging, witty, and brilliant. For Dawidoff, the personal really is the political and vice-versa, and yet his book is never doctrinaire or polemic. Reading Making History Matter is pure pleasure—and truly edifying as well."
Marjorie Perloff, Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University, and author of Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

"Not many historians are able to write equally convincingly about Thomas Jefferson, Fred Astaire, and the politics of needle exchange. But, Robert Dawidoff can. With graceful prose and supple intellect [Dawidoff] roams the map of America's intellectual and cultural terrain, and he does it with bracing confidence. These essays are a pleasure to read, and they serve the best of Jeffersonian ideals very well indeed."
John D'Emilio, Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America

"Dawidoff's remarkable book affirms by example as well as argument the value of the essay for bringing history into the culture at large. He also demonstrates the value of historical scholarship in enriching that culture and the debates within it. It is a morally and intellectually courageous book, written in a personal, pungent, and compelling style, making the case for serious culture and talent that is of democracy, not simply in it, and in so doing he imaginatively and importantly refigures notions of center and periphery, majority and minority, dominant and marginalized, thus expanding our understanding of political culture. It is a book sparkling with insight on a wide range of cultural figures and issues, and it is infused with both wisdom and passion. This history does matter."
Thomas Bender, Professor of History, New York University, and author of New York Intellectuals

"What stands out in these essays, whether or not you agree with their theses, is Dawidoff's ebullient affection for his subjects.... he's not only a historian; he's also a fan..."
The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide

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Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
History...but

Part I: The Night of the Living Dead White Men
The Jeffersonian Option
Franklin and Jefferson: Before "the Democratic Fact"
"Tails in the Air": Henry Adams and the American History of the European Middle Ages
Willie's and Harry's Excellent Adventure
Fish Out of Water: George Santayana
In My Father's House Are Many Closets

Part II: Listening to Sophie Tucker
Criticism and American Cultural Repair
The Kind of Person You Have to Sound Like to Sing "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
Some of Those Days
Fred Astaire
Katharine Hepburn: "The Heiress of All the Ages"
From Ohio to the Big Rock Candy Mountain: Los Angeles as the Terminus of American
Democratic Culture

Part III: Doing Something about It
Stalking the Blushing Zebra
The Gay Nineties: Opinion Pieces
Gay Rights
   One Percent or Ten Percent—The Law Isn't Counting
   Clinton Speaks the Haters' Code Word
   First, We Demand Recognition
   Gays and Lesbians Need a Real Movement
   The Feds, Civil Rights, and Camp Sister Spirit
   Gays Won't Take Clinton's Betrayal Lightly
Clio in the Morning Papers
   Clio in Office?
   Seeing the Messiness of America's True History
   Lott's Wife
Politics of AIDS, Safer Sex, and Needle Exchange
   How About a Policy on AIDS?
   Needle Exchange Can Save Lives
   Clean Needles and Bloody Hands
   Did the President Use a Condom?
The Intolerance Wars
   In Real Life, the Funnies Aren't
   Holiday Lavender Blue
   Gays Saw Between the Lines of Ellen
   TV-H: Hazardous to your Hypocrisy
   Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness—Gay or Straight

Notes

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About the Author(s)

Robert Dawidoff is John D. and Lillian Maguire Distinguished Chair and Professor of History at Claremont Graduate University. He is most recently the author (with Michael Nava) of Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America and The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage: High Culture V. Democracy in Adams, James and Santayana.

Subject Categories

American Studies
General Interest
Sexuality Studies/Sexual Identity

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