Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: November 2015



The past is everywhere. All around us lie features with more or less familiar antecedents. Relics, histories, memories suffuse human experience. Most past traces ultimately perish, and all that remain are altered. But they are collectively enduring. Noticed or ignored, cherished or spurned, the past is omnipresent. ‘What is once done can never be undone … Everything remains forever’, wrote Václav Havel, ‘somewhere here’. The past is not simply what has been saved; it ‘lives and breathes … in every corner of the world’, adds a historian. A mass of memories and records, of relics and replicas, of monuments and memorabilia, sustains our being. We efface traces of tradition to assert our autonomy and expunge our errors, but the past inheres in all we do and think. Residues of bygone lives and locales ceaselessly enrich and inhibit our own. Awareness of things past comes less from fact finding than from feeling time’s impact on traits and traces, words and deeds of both our precursors and ourselves. To know we are ephemeral lessees of age-old hopes and dreams that have animated generations of endeavour secures our place – now to rejoice, now to regret – in the scheme of things.

Ever more of the past, from the exceptional to the ordinary, from remote antiquity to barely yesterday, from the collective to the personal, is nowadays filtered by self-conscious appropriation. Such all-embracing heritage is scarcely distinguishable from past totality. It includes not only what we like or admire but also what we fear or abominate. Besides its conscious legacies, the past’s manifold residues are embedded in our minds and muscles, our genes and genres de vie. Of passionate concern to all, the ‘goodly heritage’ of Psalm 16 becomes ‘the cuckoo in the historian’s nest’, purloining the progeny of Clio, the muse of history.

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

The Past Is a Foreign Country – Revisited
  • Online ISBN: 9781139024884
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *
Havel, Václav, To the Castle and Back, (Knopf, 2007), 330
Fasolt, Constantin, The Limits of History (Chicago, 2004), 16
Davison, Graeme, The Uses and Abuses of the Past (Allen & Unwin, 2000), 9–14, 110–30
Proust, Marcel, Remembrance of Things Past (1913–27; Penguin, 1983), 1: 923–4
Rankine, Claudia, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MN, Graywolf 2014)
‘The past of the future: from the foreign to the undiscovered country’, in Jenkins, Keith et al., eds., Manifestos for History (Routledge, 2007), 205–19 at 205
Beard, Mary, ‘Do the classics have a future?’ NYRB, 12 Jan. 2012: 54
Wood, Gordon S., The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (Penguin, 2008), 40–61
Lowenthal, David, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, 1998), xvii
‘The frailty of historical truth: learning why historians inevitably err’, AHA Perspectives on History 51:3 (March 2013): 25–6
Mill, John Stuart, ‘The spirit of the age, I’, Examiner, Jan.–May 1831, nos. I, IV
James, Henry, The American Scene (1907; Indiana, 1968), 410
Hexter, J. H., ‘The rhetoric of history’, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Macmillan, 1968), 6: 368–94
Panofsky, Erwin, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960; Paladin, 1970), 108–13
Schiffman, Zachary Sayre, The Birth of the Past (Johns Hopkins, 2011)
Dennis, Nigel, Cards of Identity (1955; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974), 119
de Courcy Ling, John quoted in ‘British refighting Battle of Waterloo’, IHT, 29–30 Sept. 1984: 1.
Marsh, George P., Man and Nature (1864; Harvard, 1965), 43
Alexander, Edward P., Museum Masters: Their Museums, and Their Influence (AASLH, 1983), 239–75
Belent, Karin et al., eds., Skansen (Stockholm: Sandvikens Tryckeri, 2002).
Lowenthal, David and Prince, Hugh C., ‘The English landscape’ and ‘English landscape tastes’, Geographical Review 54 (1964): 309–46 and 55 (1965): 186–222
‘The American scene’, Geographical Review 58 (1968): 61–88
Lowenthal, David and Binney, Marcus, eds., Our Past before Us: Why Do We Save It? (Temple Smith, 1981)
Lowenthal, David, ‘Conserving the heritage: Anglo-American comparisons’, in Patten, John, ed., The Expanding City: Essays in Honour of Jean Gottmann (Academic Press, 1983), 225–76
Halsey, A. H., ‘Past perfect?’ History Today (Mar. 1986): 54
Welch, Colin, ‘Gone before but not lost’, Spectator, 23 Nov. 1985: 27
Drury, Martin, ‘The restoration of Calke Abbey’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 136 (1988): 490–9
Lowenthal, David, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, (Cambridge, 1998)
Allison, Lincoln, ‘Spirit of the eighties’, New Society, 25 Apr. 1986: 24
Armstrong, Lisa, ‘Goodbye hippie chic as Galliano turns hourglass back to the 50s’, Times, 7 July 2004
Sanders, Andrew, In the Olden Time: Victorians and the British Past (Yale, 2013), 312
Rutenberg, Jim, ‘Media talk’, NYT, 5 Aug. 2002
Coren, Alan, ‘How I found myself in the wrong century’, Times, 10 Aug. 2004
Bradbury, Malcolm and Oursler, Michael, ‘Department of amplification’, New Yorker, 2 July 1960: 58–62 at 59
Laslett, Peter, The World We Have Lost: England before the Industrial Age (Methuen, 1965
Gould, Stephen Jay, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Norton, 1989), 43–5
Spier, Fred, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
Spier, Fred, ‘Big history’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 33:2 (2008): 141–52
Christian, David, Maps of Time (California, 2004)
Christian, David, ‘A single historical continuum’, Cliodynamics 2 (2011): 6–26
Shapley, Harlow, Beyond the Observatory (Scribner’s, 1967), 15–16
Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice, The Uncertainties of Knowledge (Temple, 2004), 23, 115–16
Rudwick, Martin J. S., Bursting the Limits of Time (Chicago, 2005), 188–93, 642–51
Kauffman, Stuart A., Investigations (Oxford, 2000), 22
McNeill, William H., ‘Passing strange: the convergence of evolutionary science with scientific history’, History and Theory 44:1 (2001): 1–15 at 5
Smail, Daniel, On Deep History and the Brain (California, 2008)
Shryock, Andrew and Smail, Daniel, eds., Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (California, 2011)
Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac (1949; Oxford, 1966), 50
Vansina, Jan, Oral Tradition as History (Wisconsin, 1985), 23, 168–9
MacFarquhar, Larissa, ‘The dead are real: Hilary Mantel’s imagination’, New Yorker, 15 Oct. 2012: 46–57 at 46
Tunbridge, J. E. and Ashworth, G. J., Dissonant Heritage (Wiley, 1996)
Silverman, Helaine, ed., Contested Cultural Heritage: Religion, Nationalism, Erasure, and Exclusion (Springer, 2011)
Oppenheimer, Mark, ‘A twist on posthumous baptisms leaves Jews miffed at Mormon rite’, NYT, 2 Mar. 2012: A12.
Merton, Robert K., On the Shoulders of Giants (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965)
Solnit, Albert J., ‘Memory as preparation: developmental and psychoanalytic perspectives’ (1984), in Sandler, Joseph, ed., Dimensions of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 1989), 193–218 at 218
Lewis, Sylvi, Beautiful Decay (Philadelphia: Running Press Teens, 2013), 107