May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian. I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs. Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more. And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work. It got published today.
October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments
I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood. It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press. To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement. The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.
November 9, 2015 § 15 Comments
My wife and I are watching the BBC show Indian Summers. It’s about the British Raj in 1930s India and its summer retreat at Simla, in the foothills of the Himilayas. The show centres around Ralph Whelan, an orphan who has risen in the British civil service in India to become the Personal Secretary to the viceroy, as well as his sister, Alice who has mysteriously shown up in Simla, leaving behind some murkiness. Alice, you see, was married, and she claimed her husband is dead. However, it turns out he is not. I don’t know how this turns out yet, we’re only 5 episodes in.
But what interests me is the relationship between siblings. Ralph is the elder child, though it’s not entirely clear how big a difference in age there is between he and Alice. Nevertheless, it is big enough to make a huge difference in their upbringing. It’s also not clear when their parents died. Both Ralph and Alice were born in India, but Alice was sent back to England when she was 8, presumably when their parents died. She has only recently returned to the colony. Ralph, it appears, has spent most of his life in India.
The memories of Ralph and Alice of their childhood are radically different. In the first episode, Ralph manages to have dug out a rocking horse that Alice apparently loved as a child. She has no recollection of it. And this sets the pattern. Every time Ralph recalls something from their childhood, Alice responds with a blank look. At one point, she says “I didn’t have the same upbringing” as Ralph did.
I found myself thinking about the relationship between siblings and memory. Halbwachs notes the social aspect of memory, how we actually form our memories in society, not individually. In her acknowledgements to her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel provides a hint to the disparate memories of siblings when she thanks her family for not objecting to her publishing the book. In Fun Home, Bechdel ponders her father’s death against the discovery that he was closeted, all the while she figures out her own sexuality and comes out. Her memory of the events, and the way it is told, is carefully curated. She controls the entire story, obviously, as its her story. But, clearly, the hint is that her siblings (to say nothing of her mother) might remember things differently.
Even in my own family, largely due to the 5 1/2 years separating me from my younger sister and the 12 1/2 years between my brother and I, it often feels like we grew up in three different families. I remember things differently than my sister, and we both remember events differently than our brother does. Even events all three of us clearly remember, there are wide disparities in how we remember things go down.
As the experiences of the fictitious Whelan siblings, the real Bechdels, and me and my siblings, the existence and function of memory in a family counters Halbwachs’ claims about the formation of a collective memory. Indeed, given the strife that tends to exist in almost all families, it is clear that perhaps the formation of memories and narratives in families works differently tan in wider society.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers. In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling. Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.
The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable. Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too). The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country. And they all agreed on things.
Reality is far from this. The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are. Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not. Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population. And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%. The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.
The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe. The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other. Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought. In other words, the Constitution was a compromise. The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.
Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814. But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country. In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.
It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time. Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless. You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race. It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.
But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements. The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central. I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives. Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.
Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs. So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.
September 16, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is Wesleyan Hall on the campus of the University of North Alabama. It is the oldest building on campus, dating back to 1855. Florence, the town in which the university is located, was over-run by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. Parts of northern Alabama were actually pro-Union during the war and at least one town held a vote on seceding from the Confederate States of America. This was made all the more complicated by the fact that the CSA was actually created in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, and the first capital of the CSA, before it moved to Richmond, Virginia.
Wesleyan allegedly is still marked by the war, with burn marks in the basement from when Confederate troops attempted to burn it down in 1864. A local told me this weekend that there is allegedly a tunnel out of the basement of Wesleyan that used to run down to the Tennessee River some 2 miles away.
The most famous occupant of Wesleyan Hall during the war was William Tecumseh Sherman. It is in this building that he is alleged to have said that “war is hell” for the first time. Of course, there are 18 other places where he is alleged to have said this. And herein lies the position of the public historian.
Personally, I think Sherman said “war is hell” multiple times over the course of the Civil War, and why wouldn’t he? From what I know of war, from literature, history, and friends who have seen action, war is indeed hell. But I am less interested in where he coined the phrase than I am in the multiple locales he may or may not have done so. What matters to me is not the veracity of the claim, but the reasons for the claim.
So why would people in at least 19 different locations claim that Sherman coined the phrase at that location? This, to me, seems pretty clear. It’s a means of connecting a location to a famous event, to a famous man, to raise a relatively obscure location (like, say, Florence, Alabama) to a larger scale, onto a larger stage. It ties the University of North Alabama to the Civil War. But more than that, since we already know the then LaGrange College was affected by the war, but the attempt to claim Sherman’s most famous utterance creates both fame for the university, and makes the claim that something significant connected to the war occurred on the campus. There are no major battlefields in the immediate vicinity of northern Alabama, so, failing that, we can claim Sherman declared that ‘war is hell’ in Wesleyan Hall.
August 27, 2015 § 5 Comments
Alabama is one of the forgotten states. The chair of my department calls it a fly-over state, a place you look down upon when flying from Miami to Chicago. The only time Alabama ever seems to enter the national discussion is when something bad happens here, or when the University of Alabama or Auburn University’s football teams are ranked in the Top 25. But otherwise, Alabama only makes the national news when bad things happen. It’s like Alabama is the butt of a joke the entire country is in on.
Not surprisingly, I find this problematic. Alabama is a surprisingly diverse place, both in terms of racial politics, politics in general, and culture. Like most states, the population and culture is not homogenous. Where I live, in Northern Alabama, the area is more culturally attuned to Nashville and Tennessee as a whole, rather than Birmingham or Montgomery.
The town I live in, Florence, is an amazingly funky little college town. We have a bustling downtown with restaurants, cafés, nightclubs, and stores. There are a series of festivals here and the people of Florence take pride in their downtown, which has been rejuvenated despite the fact the city is ringed with stripmalls, including two Wal-Marts. Like many other towns and cities across the state, Florence is the beneficiary of Main Street Alabama, dedicated to the revival of the urban cores of the state.
Across the Tennessee River are three more towns (Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia) and collectively, the region is known as The Shoals. Anyone who knows anything about music knows about the rich musical history of the Shoals area. Every time I turn around, I see more potential public history projects.
One thing that we are involved in is the Alabama Cultural Resource Survey. This project is a collaboration between the Public History programme here at the University of North Alabama and the Auburn University History Department. Since I arrived in Alabama last month, I have been to a series of meetings around Northern Alabama talking to people about the survey and its importance in leading up to the 2019 Alabama Bicentennial. This project is unique, I cannot think of anywhere else in the United States or Canada where such a project has been undertaken. We are asking the people of Alabama to contribute to a telling of their history for the Bicentennial. Eventually, this survey will migrate over to the Archives of Alabama website.
So far the response has been impressive. Alabamians are anxious to tell their stories, multiple and multifold as they are, to have them entered into this massive database for themselves and their descendants to use.
But this isn’t the kind of thing that Alabama makes the news for. Maybe that’s a good thing, we can keep all the good stuff going on in our state to ourselves.