Ari Helo (University of Helsinki)
April 8, 2019
Parting with Moralistic Historiography in American Studies
In mock celebration of the most unassuming self-made man in all American history, an old witticism held that "President Abraham Lincoln was born in a tiny Kentucky log cabin, which he had built with his own hands." How do we exist in time, in that constant present that is distancing us from the past but also keeping our future secret from us? This lecture suggests that we should distinguish between our messy past and the history written of it. While necessarily interpreting the past, professional historians and laypersons alike remain tempted, consciously or not, to make American history serve their own political and moral views. We tend to impose our present values on the past, and sometimes go so far as to believe that the past can be changed by present action. Dismissing moralism does not equate to losing moral considerations. How to keep the past distinct from our current sociopolitical concerns when writing history of it? Why is contrafactual history a waste of time? What should we think of the Confederate statues in terms of historical thinking?
Ari Helo (Ph.D) is a Senior University Lecturer in North American Studies at the University of Helsinki. Before his current position he has held lecturer positions in Intellectual History, American Studies, and Cultural Studies at three Finnish universities. He has also worked as a Research Fellow at the University of Virginia and the University of Helsinki for several years. Helo's scholarly articles have been published in Britain, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States. His award-winning book, Thomas Jefferson's Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress (Cambridge University Press, 2014), was characterized as "an exhilarating intellectual ride" in The American Historical Review. He has lately finished a book on historical methodology.