History Written in the Blink of an Eye

"The present is a void," the literary critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks wrote in 1918, "and the American writer floats in that void because the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value." Coining the phrase he is best remembered for, Brooks called on his fellow citizens to join in the search for "a usable past." If they could not discover one, he argued, they could invent one.

Brooks's pitch was not aimed at historians, whose profession