A historian with a broad view of American culture's movers and shapers
Making History Matter
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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.
"Katharine Hepburn, Ben Franklin, Fred Astaire, Thomas Jefferson, Sophie Tucker, George Santayana, Irving Berlinsurely 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."
"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."
"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 pleasureand truly edifying as well."
"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."
"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."
"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..."
Part I: The Night of the Living Dead White Men
Part II: Listening to Sophie Tucker
Part III: Doing Something about It