American Myth 101

In a provocative book, historian Michael Kammen explores how Americans reinvent their past to fit the present

Historiographers (an ugly-sounding word for historians of history) are coming round to the view that history consists of little more than a series of consensual myths. It is not a nation's past that shapes its mythology but a nation's mythology that determines its past. History becomes a minstrel show glimpsed through a musty lens distorted by tradition, popular culture and wishful thinking.

In his fascinating and magisterial book Mystic Chords of Memory (Knopf; 864 pages; $40), Michael Kammen explores the complicated relationship between history and memory that has existed since America began. What Kammen sets out to do is both modern...

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