Collective Memory, Commemoration, Memory, and History: Or William O 'Bryan, the Bible Christians, and Me

By Lloyd, Jennifer M. | Biography, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Collective Memory, Commemoration, Memory, and History: Or William O 'Bryan, the Bible Christians, and Me


Lloyd, Jennifer M., Biography


In 1994 a group of historians gathered in Pasadena at a Narrating Histories Workshop. Among the topics discussed were the temptation of fiction; professional standards; whether the past can be narrated at all; and the question of the self in text. The one that inspired the most impassioned argument was the last. Susan Crane, a historian of nineteenth-century German preservationist culture, remarked:

Subjectivity is usually reserved for the prologue of a history where emotional and fiscal debts are acknowledged. The use of the first-person voice is always a conscious narrative choice; its official use is restricted, but the "I" of the historian is absent--it is simply nor invoked.... Subjectivity is the great unmentionable in historical narratives. Historians are not encouraged to relate their personal reactions, motivations, emotions, dreams or other imaginative connections between their reading, research, and writing or envisioning. (Rosenstone et al. 8, 10)

Nowadays most historians would admit that their narratives and analyses contain no more than one possible and incomplete account of a past that is never fully recoverable in all its complexity. While we must strive to know all that we can and suppress nothing that we know, how we present our knowledge is subjective. But, as Crane points out, we deny our presence. We pretend detachment and objectivity; any discussion of how we came to a topic, the process of our research, or our emotional and imaginative connections to our subject matter, is reserved to a foreword most readers skip.

This essay is an experiment in introducing the "I" into the historical process. It combines autobiography with historical research, and in the process I consider the nature of collective memory and acts of commemoration. I hope to show how the personal combines with the professional, how a chance encounter eventually became an historical inquiry.

Cornwall, England, 1989. I wouldn't have seen it if it hadn't been for my partner Connie's insistence. That morning we had driven over the hill, above where the milk stand used to be, and Gunwen Farm appeared ahead of us as it always had, a cluster of low gray buildings on a slight rise. I felt that thrill of gratified recognition when something is just as you remembered-a totally familiar landscape. We drove between the farm's boundary and the moor on the narrow road that follows the stream, the three bumpy crags of Helman Tar rising to the right. At the bottom of what we used to call Strawberry Lane we parked and walked the short distance to the farm gate, the same one I had opened countless times forty-something years ago. The wild strawberries we used to pick in profusion every summer were still there, and we tasted a few as we walked.

"Well," I said to Connie as we leant over the gate, "This is it." "Aren't we going to see the farmhouse?" she asked, puzzled. "No, it's private property. "I don't care; I've come this far and I'm going to see it." She opened the gate, and I followed, protesting ineffectually. We do this often: I see the obstacles, she disregards them. I have come to see this as a useful symbiosis rather than a fundamental flaw, a creative tension between impatience and caution.

We walked down the same dirt drive through Entrance Field, now separated by a new rail fence, and turned the corner, passing a lane on the left, choked with undergrowth. My father had kept it clear. In its hedges my brother and I had picked the violets my mother crystallized for our birthday cakes when post-war austerity meant there were no candles. A little further on, the big open Dutch barn where we had stored the hay still stood on the right, next to the oak tree in whose low branches I read for hours. A few steps more and we were in the farmyard. The barns, built of irregular chunks of Cornish granite held together by mortar, were as I remembered them--the cars in the same shed, the house behind, and further ahead, the barn my father had turned into an efficient milking shed.

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