THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY. By David Lowenthal. Cambridge University Press. 489 pp. $27.95.

WHEN I WAS teaching for a month or two at Yale, every inch the visiting British Mascot, I made a casual remark which suddenly got me into hot water. "You Americans," I said, "have a vivider sense of the past than we do. History really matters to you. It doesn't matter all that much to me." It was hastily decided, when the shock died down, that I only thought I had less of a sense of the past than my hosts. In fact I took my British past so much for granted that I was quite unconscious of it -- which was what they liked about the Brits.

It is certainly open to me all these years later to cite the present book on my side of the argument. Here is an American, though interestingly enough an American who seems now to live and work in Britain, rolling out 450 annotated, illustrated, elaborated pages on the past. Everything distinguishable about the past is here. How we know it, if indeed we know it at all. What it means to us, and how we lose a sense of meaning if we have no access to it. If we can escape it, and the consequences of doing so. Or is it, as Herbert Butterfield put it -- Butterfield who is so much an influence it would seem on Lowenthal -- that the past is coiled up inside ourselves like our entrails? Carried everywhere and crucial to our well-being, that is to say, but never more comfortably carried than when we can forget about them altogether.

This is the point made to me at Yale all over again, but it still does not speak to my position then. What strikes me about Americans is that the events, the outcomes of the past are part and parcel of their citizenship in their country, of being Americans. It appears to matter enormously to every voter, every person, in the whole of the U.S.A., that Abraham Lincoln and the North won the Civil War. It is the same with the events in which the Founding Fathers were caught up, and the beliefs and attitudes which they shared and handed down. But nothing, absolutely nothing, in British history weighs like this, at least on me.

I don't care a fig that it was Cromwell and his Roundheads who won the Civil War in the 17th century, because nothing whatever in my present life depends upon it. Magna Carta means even less to me, and is not to be mentioned in the same breath as the American Constitution, because its importance to British Liberty, a faded phrase in any case, is a fiction rather than a fact. The Norman Conquest took place so long ago that it can't possibly count in my experience, even though faint and far-off echoes whisper at me now that the Channel Tunnel is really going to happen.

David Lowenthal is splendid on the Founding Fathers and their doctrines, and how difficult it was for their followers, since a legacy of revolution cannot itself be revolted against. Another tiny trace element of the 1980s here -- for this is just the situation of those who write in Samizdat in Eastern Europe, wearied to the aching of the bones with the pressure on them of revolutionist doctrines. How can they raise a banner of revolution against The Revolution?

THE PAST seems to stand to David Lowenthal as his own loved subject stood to Robert Burton when he wrote and rewrote, chiselled, polished and complicated his Anatomy of Melancholy and finally published it in 1621. This was an even heftier, academic volume and one which could so transfix its devotees that it was the only book which Samuel Johnson the stayabed got up early in order to go on reading. There is the same fascination with mystery and paradox, that the past should be so entirely inaccessible and yet so close and compelling, so continually echoing back the still, sad music of humanity yet so marvelously pleasurable. Because of nostalgia.

This book is splendid on nostalgia, too, and marvelous on those little bits and pieces from the vanished past which serve to legitimate and celebrate. Best of all to my mind, in an amazing array of illustrations, is the tacked-up timber Grecian pediment presiding over the shack which houses a branch of the Security Marine Bank of Madison, Wisconsin. It is, as you will see, a book which you will enjoy, if you know that the past attracts you, or if you think you are immune to its power or its spell, as those colleagues of mine in New Haven thought I thought I was.

Perhaps indeed it is the working social historian, or historical sociologist as we heavily name him now, who will appreciate this tour de force the least. What weighs on me as I go about the highly professional business of getting to know previous states of the society I inhabit are the loves and the hatreds, the aims and the successes, the disappointments and the beliefs of our predecessors. I yearn to do them justice, every single one of them who swims into my little shaft of vision. And I recognize all the time that I am faced with the impossible, with the entirely infinite extent and complication of human life.

David Lowenthal does not seem to feel as much like this. It does not appear to be past people, fellow citizens of the human polity, who speak to him, but rather what they did, and how it still affects him. Because he is an American?