A Brief Word About Clio’s Conscience

clioThere doesn’t seem to be any let up in the number and range of Civil War memory studies published or soon to be published this year.  As someone who has contributed to this body of scholarship you might expect that this brings a smile to my face and you would be correct.  That said, I do think we need to be wary of a tendency that is at the center of this particular genre.

Implicit in the act or performance of historical memory is the assumption that the event or individual in question ought to be remembered.  Historians of Civil War memory don’t simply focus their readers on a dead past they dig down to show why something was forgotten and why it ought to be remembered and perhaps even celebrated.  We cast a moral lens on the generation that supposedly ignored or intentionally dismissed some aspect of the past and we make a moral claim on our own generation as to its importance.

I am reminded of this having just finished a brand new book on the subject that I need to review for one of the Civil War magazines.  It’s a solid book and one that I will recommend, but it did raise for me the question of whether historians can go too far in making claims on our own sense of justice regarding the contentious ground between forgetting and remembering.  I was certainly guilty of this in my early research on William Mahone.  Not everything needs to be remembered or given a prominent place in our collective memory.

More importantly, not everything that is forgotten is a moral injustice.  That’s tough for a historian of Civil War memory to appreciate especially if we assume a role as something akin to a moral crusader who sets out to bring moral balance to the historical universe.  A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I don’t mind admitting that I need to be much more attentive to this tendency in myself.

Anyway, that’s my thought for the day.

5 comments… add one

  • Wallace Hettle May 7, 2013

    Every act of remembering can also be an act of forgetting. For example, the literary canon: Frederick Douglas is in, James Fenimore Cooper is out. Kate Chopin in, Jack London out. High school kids can’t read everything.

    And distorted nationalistic memories can be worse than no memory at all. Or that’s what John Sayles suggests in _Lone Star_: The last words in the film, if my memory serves, are “Forget the Alamo.”

  • Paul Taylor May 7, 2013

    But how do we go about determining what is worth remembering or not? And who gets to make those choices? Isn’t one historian’s labor of love another historian’s throw away topic?

  • Brendan Bossard May 7, 2013

    It is a fine line, Kevin, and one which every human being needs to keep in mind, not just historians. But in my opinion, it is not how righteous one feels about getting others to remember something, but one’s interpretation of the facts that really matters.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2013

      Agreed, but a memory study is a slightly different kind of beast for the reasons I described.

  • Dudley Bokoski May 10, 2013

    These are questions I should already understand, having read your blog for awhile, but how do you define Civil War memory studies? Just as an example, your book on Petersburg is about the battle but also about historical interpretation of it over time. Is there some dividing line beyond which something becomes memory studies as opposed to just historical research?

    On a related note, when did the field start and who started it? In other words, at what point did people start studying how it was certain aspects of history were studied?

    I know many times people ask questions because they have some underlying point they are trying to make, but in my case I just realized that after reading this blog for quite some time I’m not entirely sure I understand the terminology.

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