The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1995, Volume 41, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History.

By Lawrence W. Levine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Illustrations. Notes. Index. xii + 372 p. $16.95 (paper). Buy this book.

Reviewed by Elliott R. Barkan, Professor of History & Ethnic Studies, California State University, San Bernardino, and Assistant Dean of Social & Behavioral Sciences. Author of And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920-1990s (1995), Asian and Pacific Islander Migration to the United States: A Model of New Global Patterns (1992), and many articles on immigration, naturalization, and assimilation patterns.

Lawrence Levine is well recognized as a brilliant, imaginative historian who has made significant contributions to our understand­ing of American cultural history. The fourteen essays collected for this volume, spanning a quarter century, include a number of those upon which his reputation has been built. Brought together in this not uncommon fashion, they enable us to see the development of Levine’s ideas and especially his ability to recognize and identify the connective tissues tying folk and popular cultures to so many of the concrete, often segmented, components of the overall culture, especially that of politics.

Following two introductory essays describing his initial explorations in the 1960s (the second being a revisionist view of William Jennings Bryan’s views in the 1920s), five pieces (found in Part II) cover his work on the cultural synthesis and invaluable functions of African American slave songs, folk tales, religion, folk songs, and the later revitalization efforts of Marcus Garvey. A sixth study separately explores the impact of America’s indigenously developed African American jazz tradition in relation to the more general American musical culture. The remaining half-dozen essays, comprising Part III, concentrate on a variety of cultural themes, each perceptively linking specific issues to broader cultural developments, such as the general popularity of Shakespeare in the 1800s and the subsequent bifurcation of American culture into high brow/low brow; the paradox of the 1920s’ love of progress and dread of change — a nostalgia for the past combined with Americans’ desire to enjoy modern conveniences; and the impact of film, photography, and the unifying elements of the mass media in the 1930s, shaping and reflecting powerful strains in society and the widespread search for security and stability. Levine’s overall theme is quite explicit: his evolution as a historian coincided with the new historiography, which was to see history through the experiences of all peoples, the powerless as well as the powerful. “We need, desperately, to enter the movie palace and the ballpark, the workplace and the living room, the neighborhood and the church, the stores and the streets, the farmhouse and the fields” (p. 280). He had struggled to articulate a scholarly approach that was based on the conviction that “there is no exclusive preferred form for the writing of history and that no single group in history and no one aspect of the past — the social, the political, the cultural, the economic — is inherently more important, or more essential, or more relevant than others” (pp. 12-13).

Given, furthermore, his definition of culture as “a process, not a fixed condition, . . . the product of unremitting interaction between the past and the present” (p. 154), his explorations of both African American and mainstream American cultures — as well as the several intersections between them — offer valuable suggestions for the examination of similar cultural intersections here in the Southwest.

As valuable as these essays are, they would have been notably enhanced had Levine used his introductions to each essay to reflect more effectively upon his work, its impact, and its relation to subsequent research by him and by others rather than to devote them largely to somewhat self-congratulatory reminiscences of how the essays originally came into being (e.g., pp. 172, 257, 291).

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