David Thelen, Memory and American History

Thelen discusses a number of interesting concepts–issues of collective memory, the oral history interview as a “conversation,” among others.  Do you think that the construction of memory (and identity) is a valid subject of study for the historian, as much so as the search for accuracy in memory? Or have you experienced an altered or “constructed” memory of a place that surprised you upon return after a long absence?

Thelen’s article reminded me of an exhibit of photographs, Lost Virginia: Vanished Architecture of the Old Dominion. The  architectural heritage of Virginia is, in general, highly valued and protected, but one significant building in the show that had fallen to demolition without protest–the home of an infamous Civil War traitor.


30 responses to “David Thelen, Memory and American History

  1. The study of memory in all its workings and outcomes is important for an historian because history is retelling of the past, and the past comes from interpretation of memories. The most interesting idea in Thelen is his explanation of how we are sometimes surprised at certain turns of events, but then we realized we knew all along what was coming when we piece together snippets of the past. Retrospect helps us redefine who we are and our relationships to others.

    In my literature classes, I teach several works of Asian or Asian-American writers–Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston. We discuss how storytelling is an important part of Asian tradition. Thelen’s piece made me realize how every history depends on storytelling in some capacity (more of that here: http://wp.me/pU81y-S ).

    I’ve never had an experience of returning to a place I’ve reconstructed in my mind. However, I’ve had several instances of seeing someone from my past and thinking, Hmm, I used to date that? or Wow, that’s not how I remembered her. So I have partaken in unintentional reconstruction of memory in some way.

    • It is not possible to have one without the other. The construction of memory is predicated on the accuracy of memory and visa versa. Memory cannot be effectively constructed if it is not accurately determined.

  2. One of the most powerful examinations of the importance of the construction of memory that I have read is The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and the Architecture of an American Myth by Gar Alperovitz. In the second half of the book, Alperovitz traced how the collective memory of many World War II veterans evolved that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan saved their lives. This wasn’t literally true, as the invasion of Japan wasn’t scheduled to begin for several months after the United States dropped the bombs, but the veterans and the country as a whole remembered it that way anyway. The government manufactured this memory in order to justify using the bomb and to make the country comfortable with having the bomb. The country, in turn, shaped their interpretations of the moral consequences of having the bomb and what to do with the bomb on the basis of that memory. The construction of the memory and the existence of the memory had far reaching consequences that went beyond whether or not it was actually true. When I work with oral histories now, I usually find myself thinking back to Alperovitz and the memory of the bomb. It had a huge impact on my thinking.

    I think memory can best be seen as a text, like a work of literature or a film. As a text, it’s creators intent and its truth hold a lot of significance. However, its ultimate meaning is a battleground that is also shaped by how powerful interests and society at large want to interpret it. Using the atomic bomb, voting for John Kennedy, marching for or against segregation, all of these are events that get re-remembered as society evolves to emphasize a different correct answer. How those memories shift is oftentimes as interesting a story as what actually happened.

    • Marianne Trale

      Yes, powerful interests and society indeed battle for interpretation of meaning. An excellent idea.

  3. Yes, I definitely think the construction of memory (and identity) is a valid subject of study for the historian because so very much is left up to personal interpretation. I’ve wondered about this issue, but of course not to the extent covered in this article. Thelen covers the psychological, social, political, cultural, etc. aspects of how and what we remember. I agree that “memory making” is a give and take process. We retell or restate our memories to please the people we share them with and to bolster our own positions.
    This topic ties in with our last post about restoration (kind of). Asking can a thing ever be restored is kind of like asking can a memory ever be retold exactly as it was.
    My daughter has a particular memory of a friend that comes up from time to time that I have always found to be interesting. I have a good friend who has a daughter the same age as my daughter. My friend and I keep in touch, but our children have only seen each other a few times on special occasions. My daughter always remembers her daughter as one of her very best childhood friends and always in a very fond way. I’ve never wanted to say – you don’t really know her that well because in her mind she was one of her very best friends.

  4. help!
    david thelen: at the other end are linguistic or anthropological issues of how cultures establish tradition and myths from the past to guide the conduct of their members in the present. (paragraph three)
    what does this sentence mean?
    examples would be greatly appreciated. all i can think of is beowulf.

    • All I think it means is that we use tales to teach. Hansel and Gretel go off alone in a forest, follow a trail of candy, start eating property that is not theirs, and wind up in an oven. That teaches the community (1) don’t eat other people’s stuff, (2) don’t roam around a forest without parental supervision, (3) don’t allow your children to roam around a forest and eat anonymous candy, and (4) don’t build your house out of gingerbread.

    • Tradition and myth from the past that guide the correct conduct of the present? How about the “merchants and death” myth that sustained American neutrality in the 1930s? Or the myth of the happy black folks that undergirded segregation struggles in the 1950s/1960s/1970s?

      There are plenty of items in history that indicate how myth-perceptions affected outlooks.

    • The first example that comes to mind for me is the foundational epic, the Ramayana by Valmiki. A love story at its core, the tale was passed on by oral tradition from circa 1500 B.C.E. It was recorded in Sanskrit by Valmiki roughly in 400 B.C.E. The epic sets forth societal mores — of dharma and righteous behavior — that are revered by the Indian people. Even today in India, one will find versions of the Ramayana on the media.

  5. Memoir, reconstructed without the aid of notes.

    In answer to the questions posed to us about Thelen, yes, yes. I have great respect for historians, who are writers engaged in constructing the subjects of their narratives. Nonetheless. For several years I taught a sociology course in qualitative research methods to young men and women in upstate NY. Most of them aspired to become social workers or some type of civil servant or police officer. At the beginning of the course I would give them a difficult task, “Practice non-judgment.” If you want to understand another person in their world, you can’t begin by thinking of yourself as better or smarter or engaging in judgment of the person who is speaking with you. If you judge before you can really listen, you will only hear yourself. Our quest for verstehen had begun. Establish who you are. Establish your identity and the identities of your participants. Respect yourself and the participants to seek understanding. Consent is the beginning of a good conversation. Later, we reviewed the checklist of tools you need to do field research properly from a popular textbook, including recorders, cameras, ways of capturing the “record” of the conversation, person or place. The array of new high powered software for picking out words, phrases and topics looked exciting. Early Nudist. I showed them photographs and video movies I made of my study participants (note I avoid the labels ‘informant’ or ‘subject’ and usually use first names). Everybody is now more excited by the equipment than by the people. I rejected it all. Do not bring anything to the conversation that will take more of your time and attention than asking questions and listening, no business cards and no expensive equipment. What do you need to make the best observations in sociology? A pen or pencil and a notebook from the dollar store. An accurate description is still a radical act, and the most profound thing you can achieve. With these simple tools our goal is to make a record of a number of conversations, called interviews. The stories that individuals tell are not going to match, but we are looking for what the stories have in common. In my studies I have encountered many dilemmas in interpretation. I show them more of my own record making activity. More than three artists mention a happening at a mustard factory, and try to describe where the factory is located. Some people were naked in one of the exhibits. What does this mean? Is it a wild event like a frat party? Or a defining event? What does nakedness mean? I show them a documentary of a woman and her friends constructing an art show. The action takes place over several days. At the end of the movie she dances in glitter, strings of fur and wild vines while a man sprinkles water on her performance. Can we describe the situation and how it occurred, its location in time, place and memory? Isn’t the waterfront a really dangerous place? Prostitutes stroll over there, is that what this is about? No. Fear is a barrier. Don’t listen to the myths of place as a base line for comparison. Why is something art? Another show and tell may be incomprehensible. I need to find examples that fit the students’ expectations and interests.
    In a PowerPoint slide lecture I show them some photographs of racist graffiti. I tell them a story about how an artist who invited a black friend to live in her house, was approached by a neighbor and warned that ‘she wouldn’t live here long.’ The neighbors didn’t like her inviting those people in. What is the neighbor saying? Is the artist home owner misinterpreting the conversation in the story she is relating to me? This is tough for everyone. They don’t like her friend. “Human beings are infinitely messy,” I share. We practice interviews as if we are working in a social service office or a controlled lab setting. This practice helps them show respect, gain consent, engage in conversation and study their own notes. This is easier to understand. They have all seen these types of interviews on TV. Some of them have been interviewed in a social service setting. This feels clean. There is a list of questions. There are clearly defined rules. I was bored, but they seemed to enjoy role playing. Everything meets their expectations. This is the conduct consistent with the established myths and traditions they hope to engage in when they achieve employment as social workers or police officers. I throw my records in bags, bury them in storage and move on.

  6. Marianne Trale

    “Memory and American History” by David Thelan reminded me of something that Stith Thompson in “The Universality of the Folktale” says about the changes that folktales undergo according to the teller of the tale. Thelan says, “The starting place for the construction of an individual recollection is a present need or circumstance.” Thompson talks about how tales are passed down orally from one generation to another, finding their way into the written tale. and that each teller has a purpose for telling the tale whether it is entertainment or to teach a lesson, as so with each teller, the tale undergoes a change. The story of Cinderella, for example, was told in ancient China, India, Europe and is now a recurrent Hollywood theme. But each teller’s purpose was/is different, so each tale has a different spin. Charles Perrault’s version, for example, was told to the French Court, where it had to be sugar coated; whereas, the Grimm brothers’ tale was quite different, far bloodier, and rather than being told for entertainment, it was told to teach a lesson. So it would seem that memory has a lot to do with the rhetorical situation and must be at least partly construction. If this is so, then history is also a construction, different spins according to the historian. An interesting spin on history is what Beauvoir says in “Woman as Other” where she states ” … for the present enshrines the past–and in the past all history has been made by men.” I think that’s changing as I see study of more artifacts such as Lucy’s letters by women historians such as Jennifer Egan in “Reading Lucy,” but I wonder if enough of women’s history will ever be recovered by women or just given the same old spin.

    • Marianne, I love telling original fairy tales to my lit classes! The bloody tales shock most of them. They are truly more didactic than the Disneyfied versions.

  7. jeanarrington

    David Thelen was simply too abstract and lengthy for me to deal with right now with the end-of-semester papers, exams, reports, etc, etc. I’m in a memoir-writing group and am also working on a book about a turn-of-the-20th-century architect, so am interested in the topic in a very personal way. But I’m going to have to get back to the article in a few weeks – before our workshop begins, for sure.

  8. This was an interesting read. I think the part that really stuck out to me was the reference made to Halbwach’s piece on Collective Memory that mentioned that people “decide what they want to remember and how they want to remember it” in the course of taking a picture or creating an album. This, I believe, is one example of the compelling argument that can be made that construction of memory and identity is indeed a valid subject of study for the historian. Of course, striving for accuracy should be a priori, but interpretations and the sources of those interpretations are also very worthwhile and important considerations.

  9. I thought Thelen’s exploration of memory was very helpful in replacing the file cabinet analogy with something more fluid–something constructed from associations that are pertinent at one moment and not at another. I have always seen history as the outcome of contest won by the powerful–and of course the powerful shift from time to time. But I never appreciated that memory itself is reconstructed and not carbon-copied in our individual experience to meet the present need or circumstance.

  10. Diane Whitney

    Memories can drive us to the edge of insanity or hold us together in one piece. They are necessary to affirming our sense of individual existence and personal history, yet they are fragile, and associations are crucial to keep them from drifting off into some nether region of our brain. And we can be so sure – and so wrong – with our memories. Herewith a short example of a charming moment of misremembering, between two old friends, from the musical GIGI:
    H: We met at nine
    M: We met at eight
    H: I was on time
    M: No, you were late
    H: Ah, yes, I remember it well!
    We dined with friends
    M: We dined alone
    H: A tenor sang
    M: A baritone
    H: Ah, yes, I remember it well!

    • yes, I remember it well! I hope I can say that with as much calm and affection after our week on the Brooklyn waterfront is a memory.

  11. Thelan’s piece made me think of comments made by a student of mine after she conducted a life history interview with someone who had experienced a significant global trauma. “What had she left out?, she wondered. “Why did she choose to emphasize what she did?” I think this article would provide that student with a clear understanding of the interactional nature of experience, memory, and narrative, and it would force her to question what it was about her/her experience/her context that encouraged the interview to take the shape that it did. What better way to get students thinking about the ways in which biography and history intersect – and how they do so in ways unique and variable?! This is a powerful article …

  12. This is my favorite of the week 2 readings. I enjoyed the biological discussion of how the brain processes memories on page 1120. Certainly, all of history is a memory.

  13. I was especially taken with Thelen’s concept that “memory…is constructed, not reproduced.” And that that construction is made in some context. Apropos of our study of “On the Waterfront,” I am reminded of a sequence in a PBS documentary about Kazan and Arthur Miller: Both when they wrote about their meeting when Kazan told Miller that he (Kazan) was going to testify before HUAC remembered exactly the same what the weather was like and so many of the physical details. But the substance of their discussion was 180 degrees apart. Kazan remembers that Miller told him that whatever he did would be alright with him because he knew Kazan’s heart was in the right place. Miller remembers that he was saddened because he felt in testifying Kazan wasn’t being true to himself. This episode, for me, represents what Thelen’s thesis is relative to memory and history. And I think that holds true for the “collective memory” as well. And I agree also with Thelen that we “mobilize” our memories to resist change and “appeal for popular support” by “claiming the sanction of the past.” The past as we selectively remember it, of course.

  14. Pingback: Returning: Shulberg’s “The Waterfront Revisited” | Rediscovering Brooklyn: A Local Tour De Force

  15. For me, the David Thelen piece again highlighted the problems with oral history. Yes, memories are reconstructed. When people remember an incident, for instance, they are clothed, but people rarely remember the actual clothing that they wore, just generic “work attire” or “dress up clothes.” The psychology class I have team-taught with my history class has taught me at least that much.

    Perceptions are also liable to shift with the times, as what was devotedly supported one year (Nixon in 1972) can be widely reviled soon thereafter (Nixon in 1974). People reconstruct their memories to support their current attitudes. Read any autobiography for examples.

    I guess that’s why looking at external sources is important. What do the documents say? What are other accounts from the period? The closer in time to the event, for instance, the more accurate the memory becomes.

    For me, the important line is “…why historical actors constructed their memories in a particular way at a particular time.” (1125) That is the essence of doing history. We should be able to explain why Nixon was supported in 1972 and hated in 1974.

  16. I guess I identified with jeanarrington comments the most! I, too, have been overwhelmed with end of the semester “stuff” and wondered how you all were able to get through all of the readings! In addition I am having difficulty finding the texts. I am particularly interested in the “Lucy” reading, but can’ t find the book in the Alamo City.While Brooklyn may be mine, it is definitely not theirs!! I did enjoy the Thelen history and memory article because just having finished teaching a course in early American literature, I directed my student to discuss the different historical memories of Bradford and Morton about what happened during the raid on the Merrymount colony.It is obvious that each memory, written as history, was composed for its individual audience: were the merry mounters all so “debauched” as Bradford would like his Puritan readers to believe or was Endicott so “crazed” that Morton and his followers had to feign compliance as Morton would like his English anti-Puritan audience to believe? I think before we teach history to our students we best explain how memory, collective or single, influences that history.

  17. As I read through the Thelen reading, I kept thinking back to my childhood when my parents would tell me the story of the “A day which will live in infamy” (FDR) and the bombing of Pearl Harber. Both my parents were young when it happened, my dad in high school and my mom in middle school. Every December 7th, we would listen to their stories and stories of other family members about what they were doing the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

    As I child, I did not pay too much attention because history was boring to me. However, as I got older, I realized that this was a significant event in American history that happened in my hometown and I started paying closer attention to their stories. The facts of the stories never changed over time but details were added as my mom and dad, or other family member, would remember another specific piece to the story.

    One story that stood out was about a bomb that landed in my grandmother’s flower garden. This really ticked her off because the bomb did not explode (thank goodness) but it ruined her flowers. The military came to retrieve the bomb and it left a huge hole in her yard. She decided to leave the hole there and use the hole as an pit “imu” to cook a pig for a huge luau. Of course, I didn’t think this story was true. However after my father died, I was cleaning out his property and found a container full of film from old Hawaii in the 40’s and 50’s…sure enough, there were a couple roles of the preparation and celebration of the luau at the end of the war.

    Thelen’s reading made me think about how personal accounts may still be doubted even though they are factual details. I guess history boils down to who can find the evidence to support the oral history which then makes it more real, personal and believable….this is the job of a historian.

  18. Personally, I enjoy the oral history interview. It gives us a window into a culture, at a given point in time, from a specific perspective. Having had the opportunity over the past few years to hear oral histories of the Gullah-Geechee languages and of the memories of a World War II Cherokee soldier, I can attest to how touching and gripping these occasions were for me. If the facts of history were the bricks in a building, the oral histories are the mortar that holds the bricks in place.

    Have I “experienced an altered or “constructed” memory of a place that surprised [me] upon return after a long absence?” Not recently, but I suspect that I will soon.

  19. Keith Anderson

    I was reminded as I read this piece about the prologue to Toni Cade Bambera’s collection of short stories _Gorilla, My Love_. One night the author describes how she is ambushed by her mother, who protests about having been portrayed unflatteringly in one of the stories, and the author, in turn, protests–unpersuasively–that her characters represent composites of many people in her lives and no particular one. The piece reflects the traditional treatment of memory, the idea that “we expect the accuracy of a memory to be shaped by the observer’s physical proximity in time and place to [an] event,” the result being that any gap between “recollection” and “objective reality” is perceived as a “disability.” The emerging counter-view is one of remembering as more a matter of “construction” than “reproduction.” I am reminded of incidents during my six-year tenure teaching on the Navajo Reservation when I watched students attempt to recover and re-enact word-for-word replicas of “traditional” ceremonies rather than seek out updated approaches in response to new problems and situations. Medicine men who deviated from established practices were viewed with distrust. They were “messing” with the culture. There was always a temptation to idealize the past, to treat it “as a record of stability, continuity, and consistency.” No doubt this rhetorical strategy was informed by the trauma of economic, linguistic, and social dislocations on at least as grand a scale as that suffered by the laborers along the loading docks. The truth of the matter is that Navajos and workers alike (and all people, for that matter) often turned on one another in hard times–and still do. The question is whether an idealized construct of the past can be used to improve the present condition of a people. In the case of the Navajos, attempts at “preserving” the culture has created jobs in the school system. Most B.I.A. schools have Navajo language and culture teachers. (Unfortunately, this is not the case with the state schools, whose curricula are drawn up in the state capitols.) Can restoration along the waterfront generate and–more importantly–sustain new and enduring forms of employment? (Please forgive the duplicate post under “Stranger than Fiction.”)

  20. After reading Thelen’s article, one recognizes how understanding the construction of memory can assist the historian in measuring the accuracy of memory as he or she documents and explains the change that transpires in a society over time. Knowing memory is made, subjective, not reproduced, one is forced to think critically about the “evidence” of memory and to recognize it must be considered in juxtaposition with other evidence (photographs, legal papers, memories from multiple parties, etc.). And since the construction of memory is collaborative, one must also weigh how the multiple parties involved in the documentation of memory influence the building of that memory. It makes one think, too, about the volume of memories that must be heard or studied in order for one to reach a close approximation of what actually happened. Thelen also tells us the study of the construction of memory can open doors to understanding a society and its values. This article made me think of the StoryCorps project, which invites people to record their “stories” (memories, really) and have them preserved in the Library of Congress. No story, however, is recorded without another individual being present in the recording booth. StoryCorps encourages people to bring someone they care about — a family member, a friend, or a co-worker — to collaborate in constructing the memory through dialogue, but in some cases a person asks to enter the booth with a complete stranger, a trained facilitator provided by StoryCorps. Perhaps they feel more free in sharing with strangers than they feel in disclosing to someone with whom they have a close relationship. In any case, I thought it was interesting that this organization values the need for more than one person to build memory.

  21. ssmithcitytech

    Great observation about StoryCorps . . . if you tell a story in the woods and there is no one to hear it . . . ?

  22. I really appreciate the inclusion of Thelen’s article addressing “Memory and American History.” How much of American history is constructed based on memory? How much of memory is “truth”? Who defines “truth” and who gets to discern “truth”? The first day of class my students complete a general information form for me. One of the questions I ask is “What do you hope to get out of this class?” Often the answer I receive to this question is “the truth,” but whose truth? The conversation begins . . .

    Absolutely, I believe historians must engage in the study of the construction of memory. Knowledge and understanding of how memory is constructed allows for a useful analysis of the accuracy of this memory. As we engage more deeply in this area of study, we can increasingly bring our students along with us. When these students then leave our classrooms and become part of the “wider audiences” Thelen speaks of at the end of his article, will they take what they have learned with them? Call me a pessimist, but I do not think the “amateur audiences” Thelen discusses will or even want to delve this deeply into the study and analytical process of memory construction and reconstruction. After I completed Thelen’s article, I tried to discuss its content with a friend and a family member. In both cases I was disappointed that my excitement and enthusiasm toward the subject matter did not elicit the same response from them!

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