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"History" Constellation from Visual Thesaurus.com.

“The world today is trade. The world has turned shopkeeper; history is economic history; living is earning a living.”

W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of White Folk"


From the Dawn of Time

“History” is among the more difficult keywords to define. Like "culture" and "society"—the keywords which launched Raymond Williams’ pathbreaking text—"history" occupies such a foundational space in our vocabulary that placing the term under question seems to pull the ground out from knowledge itself. Indeed, history as a field of study or discipline has the unique quality of being at the basis of all other domains of knowledge—a connection captured in the constellation of meanings that cluster around “history” (pictured above).

To unpack "history" thus threatens to unravel knowledge itself. One response to this dilemma may be to foreground how different disciplines respond to history or what role they ascribe to history; but this also has its difficulties. For example, philosophy's willingness to pose broad questions—i.e., “what is history?”—hazards a type of speculation that may disregard particular, material histories in order to reach a solution, a supposed essence of history. Even for cultural studies and Raymond William’s keyword-based approach, interrogating “history” through the history of its usage seems to pose a tautology: that of relying upon a term of analysis at the same time as calling it into question. Nevertheless, Williams’ approach of isolating multiple usages or sets of meaning leverages insight into the problem of history. This approach shifts the analysis away from looking to what history is, and instead looks to what history has been defined as.

Not surprisingly, the multiple usages of history cover a wide terrain. History has been used to gesture to incredibly expansive moments. This use is indexed in the Oxford English Dictionary by the sense of “history” as so utterly familiar and commonplace it appears unremarkable and ever-the-same, captured by cliches of “from the dawn of time" and “the rest is history.” But history has also been used within a narrow frame of reference. For example, W.E.B. Du Bois strategically calls attention to the narrowing of “history” to critique the limited political vision of the world in a state of crisis. He argues in his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk” that, because of the totalizing logic and sheer scale of capitalism in an era of global (neo)colonization, history is reduced to mere economic history (see epigraph above). While cliches represents uncritical uses of history, Du Bois suggests a critical use of history—where "history" itself becomes the means through which to engage in critique. Yet it is only when we know what "history" has functioned as that we can mobilize it for other purposes and to other ends ... to make history include, in Williams' words, “most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future” (148).

History as an official, written record of the past

History’s Remains

Clio, the Muse of History. Clio is often depicted with scrolls -- an artifact privileged for its wealth of information about the past. When thinking about the objects that fill museums as representative of cultures and societies, it's interesting to note that the word "museum" originally meant a place devoted to the Greek muses and the works they inspired.

One sense of “history” highlighted by the Oxford English Dictionary is history as an object, document, or archive that transmits awareness of the real events of the past to the present. While this aspect of history appears objective and even benign—as though history is an ideologically-indifferent practice that merely brings to light the remains of a bygone era—artifacts and records themselves are marked by ideological conflict. If history is written by the victors, as the saying goes, a complete account of the past from every perspective is hard to find, especially in the case of war, conquest, and oppression. What survives is often what furthers the interests of those in power.

With the fiction we’ve read this quarter, we might regard this sense of “history” quite literally: as the material objects that give characters and readers alike a glimpse into the past. At times the “official record of the past” is presented as a revelation that blindingly presents “truth has often been hidden away in half-truth to be saved for the future,” to cite historian Walter Johnson (221). This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the set of ledgers in Go Down, Moses which document the racialized dimensions of profit and debt during slavery and Reconstruction, while hiding the twisted entanglements of the McCaslin line. Yet such official records or objects do not always function as revelation. Sometimes they are puzzles that beg for a solution, as with the indecipherable ancient wooden slips that frustrate the Magistrate’s attempt to know a history before Empire in Waiting for the Barbarians. Sometimes the official account has to be challenged by locating alternative histories, as Claire Savage in No Telephone to Heaven searches for Jamaica's history in oral accounts, in aboriginal remains hidden away in the bush, or in the haunted histories found only underwater. Always, official records and artifacts provide a partial view of history’s past. Benito Cereno suggests as much through the official deposition that is bookended by Amaso Delano's "irregular" narration. While Cereno’s deposition may be registered in court and then handed down through both the historical record and through Benito Cereno itself, the larger narrative of what happened in the San Dominick's hull nevertheless remains ambivalent and gray, locked away from view.

The continual work of history, then, is to engage the ideological struggle that has made some stories of the past commonplace, while burying others as historical detritus. In a discussion of how to approach the atrocities that underwrite the history of the U.S., popular historian Howard Zinn chooses to upset the balance in historiography, where writing on history is directly and explicitly engaged in politics. He writes, “The easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress … is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth” (9).

History as the study of the formation and growth of nations or communities

The Story of US

A 17th-Century Map of the "New World." One highly influential theorist, Benedict Anderson posits that nations are "imagined communities," created by narratives (such as newspapers or other forms of print media) that circulate a fixed and seemingly natural view of "the people," while eliding histories of flux, movement, and struggle. In a new addition to his book Imagined Communities, he writes about how maps, censuses, and museums were crucial to producing nations as imagined communities. You can read an abridged version of this new chapter here.

Another sense of “history” highlighted by the Oxford English Dictionary is history as the study of the formation and growth of nations or communities. This anchors the commonplace understanding of history as a domain of knowledge that can be parsed according to countries on the globe: U.S. history, European history, the history of East Asia. But one danger with this approach is that such patent delineations often presume that nations exist as fixed, unified, and unchanging entities.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn launches by critiquing this sense of history. Zinn cites former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who famously claimed that “history is the memory of states.” Zinn then counters and qualifies his own method of telling the history of the peoples of the U.S.:

"My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex." (10)

Zinn thus writes history as a field of contest and struggle, where nations, communities, or groups are often constructed through the rejection of people who are deemed exterior to its imagined boundaries.

If nations are constructed through imagining and projecting its people as unified and its boundaries as fixed, literature and culture are a prime source for locating a different account. As Toni Morrison writes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, “The body of literature produced by the young nation is one way it inscribed its transactions with these fears, forces, and hopes” (35). Early U.S. literature reflects the anxieties of a nation defining itself and its “freedom” against the enslavement of Africans and African-American. Morrison argues that this history defined whiteness through the disavowal of enslavement as a constitutive Africanist presence or an American-Africanism. In so doing, she posits that the history of slavery in not peripheral but central to the history of the U.S. Within the course texts, this is perhaps nowhere more forcefully clear than in Faulkner’s novel Go Down, Moses where the "skeleton in the closet" of this Southern gothic is not only slavery, but also miscegenation, incest, and the denial of patrimony to the “black” children of the patriarch Carothers McCaslin.

The problem of the imagined community of the nation is marked by other conflicts as well. Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa opens her influential text Borderlands/La Frontera with a meditation on the artificial, unnatural construction of borders between the U.S. and Mexico. Indeed, the first Mexican-American novel Who Would Have Thought It? foregrounds this construction by offering the story of a Spanish girl whose status as a newly incorporated citizen nevertheless leaves her in an ambiguous position outside the other imaginary borders of the nation—along the lines of race, sex, class, and (notably) religion. Lola’s ambivalent relationship renders her illegible to the characters who encounter her in the North during the Civil War. Her place in the structure of the narrative is also incoherent in that she both provides the conditions of the story yet is sidelined through the twists and turns of the plot. What this suggests—and what makes Anzaldúa’s theorization of the borderlands so illuminating—is that the imagined borders of the nation exceed geography alone and construct border cultures along many axes of difference.

History as a continuous, connective process

Traits, Traces, and Inheritances

A 19th-century print of a family tree. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, uses of the phrase "family tree" to signify lineage date to the late 18th and 19th centuries. One example cited in the OED comes from famed Sherlock Holmes novelist Arthur Conan Doyle: "A study of family portraits is enough to convert a man to the doctrine of reincarnation" (from The Hound of Baskervilles).

A third meaning of “history” indexed by the Oxford English Dictionary is history as an “aggregate” or “train of events” that systematizes connections across time. This sense is also captured visually in the linkage of "continuum" to "history" (pictured above). In his keyword entry on “history,” Raymond Williams articulates this dimension of “history” as a continuous, connective process. Williams traces this to an important shift that he dates to the eighteenth century. Around that time, new models of thinking about human development and evolution revised the older sense of history as the discrete study of the past. He writes, “One way of expressing this new sense is to say that past events are seen not as specific histories but as a continuous and connected process” (146). What is remarkable about this transformation in “history” is that it is informed or impacted by transformations in other domains of knowledge, specifically biology.

With the fiction we’ve read this quarter, we’ve experimented with connective history in a number of ways: by placing slavery as central to (and not a subtopic under) U.S. history; by seeing this history as formative for conceptions of whiteness and its racialized others—and thus as important to understanding the dominant race/class as much as “minorities”; and by articulating slavery to U.S. imperial expansion.
But more subtle and sophisticated renderings of this meaning of "history" come from attending to definitions of "race" within the course texts. As one student astutely noted, this developmental process grafted from biology is reflected in the definition of race and the preservation of whiteness that is at the heart of Go Down, Moses. Indeed, further work on "history" as a keyword would benefit from investigating this convergence.

The narrative dimensions of “History”

In the Beginning was the Word

One of the primary shifts in the meaning of “history” defines it by contrast with fiction. The Oxford English Dictionary flags this under “historic”—where what is “historic” is presumed to be real precisely because it is not fictional. Raymond Williams also foregrounds this insight into the development of “history” as a keyword. Around the 15th century, Williams notes, “history moved towards an account of past real events, and story towards a range which includes less formal accounts of past events and accounts of imagined events” (146).

Provocative engagements with “history” might then result from maintaining an earlier sense of the word, where the distinction between what is “real” and what is “imaginary” is suspended in order to puzzle through the narrative dimensions of history, and the constructedness of the present. If history is always an interpretation or a production, how do we question its supposed objective nature to encounter its inevitable subjective basis or biases? How do we locate the authors in/of history? If history is a narrative that at least initially made no distinction between reality and fiction, how might we carry over questions that we use conventionally in reading fiction to engage history? And, if it isn’t possible to ever fully capture history, is it better to tell an incomplete and partial history, even at times purposefully false and fictional, than to not struggle with history's inevitable complications?

In relation to the course texts, one way to explore these questions is to consider how the characters in the novels respond to history and their place within its accounts. Babo chooses silence in Benito Cereno when his attempt to secure freedom through "insurgency" is denied. Madison Washington in “The Heroic Slave” acts as a voice-piece of revolution. In Who Would Have Thought It? Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton makes her characters emigrate out of the U.S. Ike McCaslin in Go Down, Moses chooses to withdraw himself from the social system he inherited, whereas Molly (and Faulkner himself) chooses to publish it. The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians ultimately buries history to regain peace through forgetting the misdeeds of Empire. And in No Telephone to Heaven Claire Savage participates in overthrowing the cultural production of Jamaica through the the lens of the "master's past."

History and Fiction

Benito Cereno

Robert Shore's depiction of the San Dominick in Benito Cereno, printed in 1965 for the Limited Editions Club.
Benito Cereno is both a fictional story and an account of history that conceals horrible atrocities that occurred in the past. These atrocities mentioned are those of slavery and the concept of history being subjective. Here, you will find an example of how "offical history" is not always as objective as we accept it to be. Addtionally, history will be discussed in terms of how it is subjective, as well as how the history of slavery can be seen in the whispers and shadows of the story's plot. Melville also raises an issue of "grayness" in how the novella is written; one in which Melville's views on slavery are obscure allowing readers to evolve their own interperations of slavery.

Who Would Have Thought It?

An Absolute ad that was printed only in Mexico.

Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) was Maria Amparo de Ruiz Burton’s first novel. Reflecting from her own personal experiences, Burton follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a family, the Norvals, who live in the North during the Civil War. As the story commences, Dr. Norval takes in Lola, an orphan whose mother died in Indian captivity, presumably as a fall-out of the U.S.-Mexican war.

  • Maria Amparo traces the history of Lola Medina as she survives the Civil War in America, opening our eyes to the contrast of the North & South - the battles, the victories, the losses, and the conditions of the people.
  • There is also a connection between the histories of other nations and peoples with that of America, in particular Mexico. The outlook on race is also present on a variety of depths.
  • Lola Medina, lacks agency as she symbolizes a nameless and faceless minority individual who crosses the border to escape from the imprisonment of the Indians and wound up as a “slave” in the Norval’s home. The ghost of slavery resurrects and lingers in the shadows as her story unfolds.
  • Who Would Have Thought It? goes deeper, showing that the lives of people are very much connected with one another and as they weave and interweave by means of interacting with one another, they affect each others' histories - like a tapestry of connected threads.

Go Down, Moses

Go Down Moses is a collection of seven interrelated stories that comprise Faulkner's epic novel. In it, Faulkner deeply analyzes and examines the complex nature of men, the changing relationships between whites and blacks, and man's own personal identity as a consequence. Here, history will be used to identify the complicated dilemma concerning discovering "truth" and voicing "truth," as well as how as individuals, we identify ourselves through these histories. In particular, Faulkner will discuss our understanding of history as a connective process, how the past affects the present, and how human relationships can be deeply rooted in past prejudices concerning slavery, despite decades of human progress.

Waiting for the Barbarians

A screen shot from the video game Civilization IV
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No Telephone to Heaven

Bob Marley and reggae offer a musical backdrop for No Telephone to Heaven.
No Telephone to Heaven is a postmodern fiction written by Michelle Cliff in 1996. This novel follows Clare Savage through past moments in her life and also her present as she travels across Jamaica in a guerilla group that is taking action to liberate Jamaica. They plan to attack a film crew who is shooting a "documentary" on the history of Jaimaca. In attacking this crew they are in a sense attacking those who seek to write their history for them and attacking those that thrive to control them and their histories from a distant land (America and England). Throughout her life Clare struggles with her identity and travels from America, to England, and back to Jamaica again to search for identity. She later finds that her history lies in Jamaica where her mother and grandmother had lived and created their lives before her.

Appendix: History and Keywords

Living Vocabularies

According to Raymond Williams, keywords mark concepts that are taken for granted as having a unified, self-evident meaning, but when situated in different locations, different communities, and at different times are actually shown to alter their implications. Keywords are crucial because they help to schmatize cultural experience by making us rexamine definitions we take for granted as being "common sense." By tracing the way meanings of one word are linked together or partially eclipsed, keywords highlight changing social relations, political contests, and horizons of possibility for the present and the future.

The methodology that Williams proposes might be best outlined by the following steps:

  1. Isolate a keyword.
  2. Consult its origin and meanings (OED).
  3. Situate it in relation to other keyword clusters that then place it within different communities, different locations, and different times to see how it has evolved. (Ours will be: Slavery, Border, South, Modern)
  4. Look for multiple, competing, and sometimes contradictory meanings and explore how they suggest different social formations.
  5. Consider how meanings are not negated, and instead may function as a carry-over or a remainder.
  6. Acknowledge that one meaning isn’t “right.” Instead deliberate over multiple meanings in order to gain not an “answer” but “extra edge of consciousness.”

History has figured in particular useful ways within the constellation of keywords that we've read.

  • Slavery: "whispers and shadows"
  • Border: "thinking on the hyphen"
  • South: "nostalgia for the Old South"
  • Modern: "homogenizing the history of the West"


Anzaldúa, Gloria. “The Homeland, Aztlán.” Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Baldwin, James. "On Being White and Other Lies." Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White. Ed. David Roediger. New York: Schocken, 1998.

Brady, Mary Patt. “Border.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996.

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Douglass, Frederick. “The Heroic Slave.” The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Du Bois, W.E.B. "The Souls of White Folk." Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. New York: Dover, 1999.

Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Guterl, Matthew Pratt. "South." Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Johnson, Walter. “Slavery.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. New York: Bedford St. Martins, 2008.

Morrison, Toni. “Romancing the Shadow.” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Reddy, Chandan. "Modern." Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It? Houston: Art Público Press, 1995.

Welty, Eudora. "Where is the Voice Coming From?" The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary for Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1942-Present. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.