By Andrea Lynn
What would the photo album of the last 100 years look like? It's hard to imagine, but a group of historians has prepared just that. "Imagining the Twentieth Century" was just published, and already it's being hailed as an ingenious way to tell the century's story.
The scholars' snapshot history of the century -- 120 photographs and more than 70 short essays -- is the labor of love of 17 history professors at the UI. Before beginning the book, the professors conducted a yearlong study of the century the hard way -- as students in their own grueling seminar; then they distilled their findings into a course that they are team-teaching every year to 2000. The book, published by the UI Press, was the frosting on the cake, say Charles Stewart and Peter Fritzsche, both UI professors of history and co-editors of "Imagining."
Still, says Stewart, the task was even more challenging than it first appeared to be. Not only did the team have to agree on photographs and issues that spoke for the century, and work closely together over the course of two years, but they also had to speak to a new audience. "The big question," Stewart said, "was could we convey the same passion we felt for history, and the same analysis, to the general reader? Was there a way for the academy to meet the town?"
The historians, representing some 14 fields of history, believe they have managed to come to town, although they concede that because they chose an autobiographical approach to analyze the century, their product is highly subjective. In fact, when all was said and done, the
professors rather uncharacteristically for them embraced the personal experience in history as often as the standard watershed event. Thus, images of Nazism, the atomic bomb and the disintegration of the Soviet Union appear next to images of "slower-moving changes in private life, in sexuality, in family structures, and in our increasing ability to manipulate nature and technology," the editors write. The short, thoughtful and often imaginative essays cover a range of issues: individualism, mass death, the Barbie doll, abundance, the pill, TV, plastics, refugees, Kung Fu films, Communism and aging.
While the book makes no pretense of being a representative history of the 20th century, its photos "illuminate the odd passages, side doors and cavernous attics of our collective memories," and its essays "give voice to the contradictory exclamations that have marked our times," the editors write.
What is the one thing editor Stewart hopes his readers will take away from the book?
"The idea that this is a century that defies categorization," he said, "and also that we all have our own answers about its meanings."
Stewart also acknowledged that the century is "qualitatively different" from other centuries. "There is something peculiar about the violence, the speed of change and the demographics of this century that ups the ante as we try to sit back and understand what's going on."
Proceeds from the sale of the book will fund a scholarship for history graduate students.
Comments to: Inside Illinois Editor Doris Dahl, (217) 333-2895, email@example.com
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