The Past Is a Foreign Country

The Past Is a Foreign Country, originally published in Great Britain in 1985, is an exploration of the nature of the past and history. What do we mean when we speak about the past, as distinct from the present or the future? What is the reality of the past? Is it the same as history? We have extremely varied attitudes about the past, although our range of attitudes is already determined to a large extent by our time frame and the local zeitgeist. People in different epochs have had ways of viewing the past very different from our own; their conceptions of it depended on the prevailing styles and beliefs of the periods in which they lived. An attitude toward the past, and assumptions about what it actually is—or was—are never constants; they vary greatly according to time, place, and other variables. Writers and ordinary people have always been fascinated by the passage of time. David Lowenthal’s study indicates the variety of attitudes toward the past from early periods with oral traditions to the present. He also includes a vast array of different sources: historians, novelists, poets, politicians, psychoanalysts, popular magazines, newspapers, cartoons, and publications of local historical societies. Although writers such as Petrarch, Michel de Montaigne, and William Shakespeare are quoted, so are the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker; high culture and popular culture are combined in a mix providing a broad sociocultural panorama.

Because so many sources are quoted, The Past Is a Foreign Country sometimes gives the impression that the variety of attitudes toward the past, and history, is infinite. Often the author suspends his own judgment, letting the inhabitants of the past speak for themselves. At first glance, the ground covered appears to be complete, the treatment exhaustive: Lowenthal writes about different feelings and emotions provoked by the past, the various motives for the study of the past, benefits sought in the past, the threats it represents, tradition and innovation, notions of youth and age, decay and progress, methods for knowing the past, and ways in which the past is changed or preserved. To provide more focus at the beginning of the book, four “case studies” are presented to show “how various epochs have endured and resolved the stresses of inheritance.” These are the Renaissance, seventeenth and eighteenth century England and France, Victorian Great Britain, and pre- and post-Revolutionary America. The studies are excellent. They convincingly show very different attitudes toward the past, as well as pasts conceived in almost totally different terms. The author has assimilated much of the abundant scholarship on these periods; the varied sources he quotes are always interesting and well chosen. This section is a joy to read.

Despite the apparent breadth of the study, there are, however, several narrower foci of interest. The historians quoted are largely British and American; the journals referred to are also British and American. French and German sources make fleeting appearances, but they are rare. There is almost no consideration of Eastern Europe and Marxist or Communist countries and very little discussion of the Third World. This is a pity, as they would have added much more drama, especially to the treatment of historiography. Nevertheless, perhaps it is a virtue that the author focuses on Great Britain and the United States—as it is, there are more than two thousand footnotes in the book. Also the approaches of the British and Americans toward the past are radically different; there is abundant material to show contrasting attitudes within the same temporal periods.

A more specific focus in the book is revealed by the title. “The past is a foreign country” is a phrase from a book by L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, published in England in 1953. The complete sentence which begins Hartley’s book reads: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Lowenthal adds:That they did indeed do things differently is a perspective fundamental to this book. But it is a perspective of recent vintage. During most of history men scarcely differentiated past from present, referring even to remote events, if at all, as though they were then occurring.

A second theme that runs throughout the book is Lowenthal’s disagreement with the British historian J. H. Plumb. In his The Death of the Past (1969), Plumb made an important distinction between history and the past. According to Plumb, the “old past”—with its mythical fetishes of bigotry, national vanity, and class domination—was dying, while history, playing an emancipatory role, was assuming its place. Lowenthal takes issue with Plumb and refuses the distinction.

Both these themes rely heavily on British rather than American evidence. Because of the cultural differences between the two countries, American readers will have difficulty in accepting Lowenthal’s arguments. He admirably evokes the varieties of pasts with which writers and ordinary people have been confronted in different epochs. The convenient distance of the classical past from the Renaissance, which did not overpower writers such as...

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