Call for Articles: Usable Pasts
In 1918 the cultural critic Van Wyck Brooks published an influential and impassioned essay, “On Creating a Usable Past.” “What is important to us?” he asked. “What, out of all the multifarious achievements and impulses and desires of the American literary mind, ought we elect to remember?” Brooks wanted scholars and critics to approach the past as “an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals,” and to produce richly personal and creative analyses in which past national experience can be “placed in the service of the future.” Brooks’s central concern was American literature, yet over the years his resonant critique has been adopted and reframed by ambitious historians from Charles Beard to Henry Steele Commager to Tony Judt, who in the last interview before his death, in 2010, said “One of the very few things that I know I believe strongly is that we must learn how to make a better world out of usable pasts rather than dreaming of infinite futures.”
Inspired by Brooks’s challenge, Places Journal is seeking articles that tell relevant histories of the built and natural environment and argue for their meaning and value as usable pasts. Most immediately our call is prompted by the Congressional resolution, introduced earlier this year by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey, charging the federal government to create a Green New Deal. That this statement of guiding principles has already attracted enormous enthusiasm underscores the widespread desire for bold public programs that would tackle the interrelated crises of climate change and economic inequality. This enthusiasm also underscores the importance of knowing the history of the bold public programs that are its inspiration. The dozens of laws and policies and reforms and projects that comprised the New Deal of the 1930s — from social security to banking reform to labor rights to rural electrification to public works — sought to fundamentally recalibrate the relationship between government and business. As the British socialist Harold Laski argued, the “Roosevelt experiment” was a systematic effort to make capitalism “the servant, not the master, of the American people.” For proponents of the Green New Deal, the earlier era is inevitably a model and a measure — a usable past.
There are, of course, numerous histories of the New Deal, from many perspectives; yet much remains to be told, especially about the unprecedented federal investment in built projects — the hundreds of thousands of roads, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals, courthouses, libraries, post offices, parks, playgrounds; the massive regional infrastructures of Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, to name only the most famous — that transformed America and produced what the historian Jason Scott Smith has called a “public works revolution.” Likewise environmental conservation was a central focus of the New Deal. One of the earliest programs was also one of the most popular; the Civilian Conservation Corps, or “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” put three million men to work in thousands of camps across the country on projects ranging from reforestation to habitat protection to the construction of hundreds of state parks. At the same time Roosevelt greatly expanded the National Park Service, and by some estimates almost 90 percent of the landscape profession was then on the payroll of the federal government. The result, according to landscape historian Phoebe Cutler, was a definitive expansion of the scope of the field, “from the clipped boxwood to the wide-open spaces.”
The New Deal is hardly the only usable past for federal programs that aim, in the language of the House resolution, “to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment.” The landmark environmental laws of the 1960s and ’70s — protections for clean air, clean water, consumer product safety, hazardous waste disposal, etc. — were passed by commanding margins with bipartisan support and signed by presidents of both parties. What might we learn by revisiting an era when the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, were passed by unanimous votes in the U.S. Senate?
The authors of the Green New Deal understand that to choose a past to remember — to use — is also to choose a future to construct. In seeking to contribute to this debate, we are aware of the traps of retrospective sentimentality and reductive utilitarianism. We are also aware that historical achievements that might seem obvious or inevitable would not have happened without inexhaustible grass-roots activism and pragmatic political negotiation and maybe even painful compromise. And we’re aware too that some pasts might be unusable. So we are especially interested in articles that will not only recount vital histories but also reflect upon exactly why a particular past might be usable, and how, in Brooks’s terms, it might be placed in the service of the future.