The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Best of BackStory – Peter Onuf’s Playlist

Peter Onuf, arms crossed, stands in from of a wall with "The Best of BackStory" on it.

An image of BackStory host Peter Onuf with the text “The Best of BackStory” in the background. Photo: Sanjay Suchak

As BackStory moves towards the end of its production, we’ve asked our hosts – both past and present – to select memorable moments from the show that we’re publishing as episodes once per month.

First up is Peter Onuf. Peter is the first (and only!) emeritus host. Peter retired from full time hosting duties in 2017 although he is still an active scholar. Here, he gives us additional insight about his favorite segments as a BackStory host, including the ones that didn’t make the cut for this week’s show. Click the links to hear the original episodes his selections came from.

  1. American Scripture from “Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth
    The late Pauline Maier was in great form here, and we had great fun. Interviews were often stressful: it can be hard to keep historians from delivering lecturettes. But when they worked, fresh insights emerged. This show as a whole is one of my favorites: David Blight’s brilliant segment on Frederick Douglass and the 4th of July was beautifully produced.
  2. The Invention of Santa from “Naughty & Nice: A History of the Holiday Season
    Steve Nissenbaum tells a fascinating story about how and why we “invent traditions,” in this case about a holiday that keeps being reinvented.
  3. Home Today, Gone Tomorrow from “Weathering the Storm: A History of Extreme Weather
    I don’t remember this segment, or show, but it shows how a through line (or would that be an arc?) could emerge spontaneously in a brief exchange. Thinking with our mouths!
  4. 1812 the Movie from “The War of 1812: Which One Was That?
    The sheer goofiness of this segment is endearing—if not enduring. I was on the road (in a studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut), with the guys in my ears, but who knows what in my head. No prep, of course: that would rule out the goofiness.
  5. Riff from “Straight Shot: Guns in America
    Unprepared, unrehearsed, and unproduced! What could be better than a riff? This one on guns hit the target.
  6. Exit and Empire from “American Exodus: A History of Emigration
    One of our silly conceits was that we each represented different centuries, which we shamelessly promoted at the expense of the others. In this segment Ed made a plausible claim for the primacy of the 19th century, provoking my rant in favor of the earlier period. Of course, the Louisiana Purchase (of 1803), the pivot of my rant, properly belongs to the “long 18th century”….

Listen to “Best of BackStory: The Time Peter Onuf Declared Independence