Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Keeping Memory: The Cemetery and Rhetorical Memory in Constance Fenimore Woolson's "Rodman the Keeper"

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Keeping Memory: The Cemetery and Rhetorical Memory in Constance Fenimore Woolson's "Rodman the Keeper"

Article excerpt

During the 1870s, author and travel essayist Constance Fenimore Woolson explored the American South and commented on the process of the Reconstruction after the Civil War. Traveling to sites of various battles, Woolson often noted the incongruities between the horror of the war and the peaceful beauty of the silent battlefields. She was continually moved by the vast cemeteries for the war's dead and concerned with how these dead might be remembered. In one letter to a friend, Woolson notes that a Tennessee battlefield cemetery's "low headboards as far as [she] could see" and the "massive structure" of an Atlanta Confederate monument to the dead were "not to be compared with those we have seen in the north" ("Letter" 86). This comparison of the North's and the South's memories of the war and how their memories are shaped is a subtle theme in Woolson's work; in other words, a century before the term "public memory" was coined, Woolson's work begins to observe how public memory is shaped.

Though few of Woolson's contemporaries addressed the nature of memory, this area of study has become increasingly important in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Recently, scholars of collective or social memory have noted that lapses of and great anxiety about memory during the period following the Civil War have led us to a rather incomplete understanding of history. Issues of slavery, the right to revolt, national unity, and regional pride all intertwine as various ideologies compete to control what is remembered about this national event and--perhaps more importantly--to determine what is publicly forgotten. While scholars such as Michael Kammen feel such amnesias can be productive ("Patterns"), other scholars such as Robin Winks feel that such erosion of memory is akin to intellectual vandalism.

To address these questions of how we keep (and don't keep) unsavory public memory, this article analyzes Woolson's short story "Rodman the Keeper," in which Woolson critiques the United States' process of retaining Northern and Southern memories of the war. In this article, I explore how Woolson portrays the process of creating public memory, as she shows that the material means of creating memorialization have little potency if the memorialization does not work rhetorically. A memorial's assertion of information, its logos, will not persuade an audience to remember if the memorial does not use all the means of persuasion, if it does not create appeals based on character (ethos) and emotion (pathos). Contrasting an authoritarian means of keeping memory with those means based on strong character and desire, Woolson seems to anticipate twentieth-century scholars' observations: memory is rhetorical. In memorialization, as in all other forms of rhetoric, logos without pathos and ethos will most probably fail.


Both rhetoric and memory were considered arts in ancient Greece, and the relationship between the two is as old as the two forms of art. (1) Aristotle is attributed with the first codification of the canons of rhetoric, and with the identification of the three appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos. Modern understandings of the appeals connect logos with the words and logic of an argument, ethos with the character of the creator of the rhetoric, and pathos with the emotions involved, though these glib understandings miss much of the complexity of the three appeals in Aristotle's first canon of invention. For example, ethos is often understood to be the ethics of an argument; instead, it is connected to the audience's perceptions of the rhetor's intelligence, values, and good intentions. (2) The creation of memory (the fourth canon according to later Roman codification) as an art dates several centuries before Aristotle; the ancient Greek Simonides, who linked the ability to remember with place, is given that attribution.

With the modern age's development of print and the increasing numbers of people with literate abilities, the importance of memory seemed to diminish, although it has become increasingly relevant since the early twentieth century, especially with Maurice Halbwachs's development of the concept of collective (or social or public) memory. …

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