Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World

Eric Foner

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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"History," wrote James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."

Rarely has Baldwin's insight been more forcefully confirmed than during the past few decades. History has become a matter of public controversy, as Americans clash over such things as museum presentations, the flying of the Confederate flag, or reparations for slavery. So whose history is being written? Who owns it?

In Who Owns History?, Eric Foner proposes his answer to these and other questions about the historian's relationship to the world of the past and future. He reconsiders his own earlier ideas and those of Richard Hofstadter. He also examines international changes during the past two decades—globalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa—and their effects on historical consciousness. He concludes with considerations of the enduring, but often misunderstood, legacies of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. This provocative book tells us many of the reasons we care about history—or should.


Praise for Who Owns History?

"Foner moves adroitly from personal history to reconstituting global history in post-apartheid South Africa and in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His overarching theme is that history is 'a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.' Foner views American history through a prism of race, and he is at his most persuasive when elucidating the 'continuing racial dilemmas of our society' in an analysis of how blacks have been mistreated by constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions."—Paul Grondahl, The New York Times Book Review

"Who Owns History? testifies to Foner's lifelong personal commitment to writing histories that advance the struggle for racial equality and economic justice . . . Foner's clearly written prose offers a thoughtful, accessible perspective on the world he and his readers inhabit . . . Makes for a provocative introduction to the diverse interests of a master historian."—David Glassberg, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, The Washington Post

"Who Owns History? introduces readers to one of the country's finest historians, Eric Foner, writing about issues more critical to American public life today than ever before."—Joyce Appleby, UCLA

"Mr. Foner takes this vocation seriously, repeatedly challenging the complacencies that allow the 'yawning gap' between American ideals and American reality."—Cornel Bonca, The New York Observer

"Who Owns History? offers engaging essays that address significant issues in lucid prose accessible to the general reader as well as students and scholars. Above all, the book carries and conveys what I call 'moral weight,' which is one of Eric Foner's notable gifts as a historian." —Michael Kammen, Cornell University

"A writer and scholar with the rare ability to present complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner, Foner has given us a volume especially vital for anyone concerned with understanding how interpretations of a seemingly long-gone past continue to shape—or misshape, as the author frequently warns—the laws and attitudes of today."—Steven J. Ross, University of Southern California, Los Angeles Times

"Eric Foner is rightly ranked among our era's most distinguished historians. In Who Owns History?, he takes on some of the most contentious issues in the American past, while candidly describing his own intellectual journeys, and often brilliantly illuminating the nature of the historian's craft."—David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Stanford University

"Foner offers a comprehensive meditation of history's malleability. The series of case studies range from the Civil War to South African apartheid to the fall of communism in the USSR. It includes themes of the historian's relationship to history; the ways a nation redefines itself in times of transition, and history's tendency to be, as Foner quotes James Baldwin, 'literally present in all that we do.' In each essay, Foner's resonating point is that history is omnipresent, and thorough understanding of it requires multiple, diverse perspectives."—Tim Bradley, Yale Review of Books

"Excellent . . . It is difficult to think of anyone working in U.S. history whose books and essays address pressing public issues more consistently and effectively than those of Eric Foner . . . Who Owns History? is a readable, engaging collection of essays; each, in its own way, shows us how we are constantly 'rethinking the past' to interpret our changing world. With courage and intelligence, Foner confronts the many challenges involved in this risky business. Anyone who practices history in the public realm will benefit from reading his stimulating writings and being reminded of how much is at stake in the contest over historical interpretation."—James Green, The Public Historian

"This collection of occasional essays by noted Marxist historian Eric Foner provides useful insight into the ever-changing, if reliably utopian, progressive mind. Foner covers a range of subjects, including blacks and the U.S. Constitution, revisionist history in Russia and South Africa, American freedom in a global age, and why there is no socialism in America."—Herman Belz, University of Maryland, Claremont Review of Books

"Valuable insight into a premier historian's passions and viewpoint."—f0Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

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Who Owns History?



In 1996, the department of history at Fordham University invited a group...

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  • Eric Foner

  • Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of many highly acclaimed works in American history, notably The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, The Story of American Freedom and Reconstruction. He lives in New York City.