A Maine resident and U.S. historian whose daily Substack newsletter on current events has amassed more than a million subscribers called book bans taking place in schools across the country astonishing, but reassured a University of Maine audience that the state of the nation actually isn’t so gloomy.
In an event kicking off UMaine’s homecoming weekend and celebrating the 10th anniversary of the university’s Clement and Linda McGillicuddy Humanities Center, prominent American historian Heather Cox Richardson and recently retired NPR reporter Brian Naylor gave an audience inside UMaine’s Collins Center for the Arts their take on the state of democracy and the country.
Since 2019, Richardson’s daily newsletter “Letters From an American” has become part of the national dialogue, and gained such a large audience that President Joe Biden sat down with her for an interview earlier this year.
Although she was born in Illinois, Richardson grew up in Yarmouth and still lives in Maine. Generations of her relatives have called the state home as well. Richardson is a Boston College history professor specializing in 19th-century American history.
Although college campuses across the nation have seen interest decline in the humanities, it is precisely the humanities that are on the frontlines of a culture war politicians across the country have been waging, Naylor said.
Richardson said she never expected to see such culture wars — specifically, debates over banning books in schools — in a country built on democracy and the free exchange of ideas.
“Did you ever think you would see this in America?” Richardson asked the audience. “Especially the book banning. It is astonishing the attacks on our local representatives, the people on our school boards. And the idea that people are threatening their lives is mind-boggling.”
But these moments show why history matters, she said.
“The reason history matters and literature matters is because they are the stories of who we are and who we want to be,” Richardson said.
Despite this battle over what children should or shouldn’t learn, and what they should or shouldn’t read, the country is in a good place, the historian said.
“Manufacturing is up. It’s coming back,” she said. “For most people, the world is looking a lot better.”
When she thinks about the state of the country, she thinks back to nearly a hundred years ago.
In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his sixth year as president, and it looked like the U.S. was leaning toward fascism with Roosevelt the potential dictator, Richardson said.
That same year, an event at Madison Square Garden billed as a “Pro American Rally” was really a large, pro-Nazi, pro-fascist, and pro-Hitler event that stands in stark contrast to the national story of the U.S. being a champion of democracy, Richardson said.
Looking back at such an event, the status of the U.S. today doesn’t seem so gloomy, Richardson said.
“Our world is actually a lot better than most people are aware of, and that’s worth keeping in mind,” she said.