Introduction: Reading History, Memory, and Forgetting

By Gwin, Minrose | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Reading History, Memory, and Forgetting


Gwin, Minrose, The Southern Literary Journal


   the dead must be mourned and sung over    and prayers told them to carry to the other side.    the dead must be chanted and marched to their tombs    and the tombs then tended and the dogs kept away. 

--Brenda Marie Osbey, "Faubourg" (1)

Cultural memory and mourning kept alive through writings and stories are as much spatial as temporal; they exist in both the past and the present, yet they move us toward a future that will inevitably become the past. What kind of future will that be, and what kind of history will it produce? As the "remembered history" (2) of the American South has become an integral part of global thinking about human-inflicted carnage and trauma and questions of justice, responsibility, and ethical intervention, many scholars in U.S. southern studies have followed the lead of southern writers in approaching the past with a heightened sense of urgency and an eye to a future in which regional and national affiliations fade in the shadow of global concerns. Especially in the past decade, Kelly Oliver's belief that "we need to find the conditions of the possibility for justice--for the impossible to become possible in the future--in the past" may have come to seem especially compelling to contemporary southern writers and scholars of southern literature who enter, remember, and sometimes mourn the past. In a reversal of causality, Oliver argues that "only by reading the conditions of the possibility of that future into the past ... can we open alternatives to the present" (47). In this sense of rethinking history for the sense of possibility it contains, this SLJ special issue on history, memory, and mourning in southern literature is as much about the future of southern studies as it is about the remembered past of a region whose borders are less situated than ever.

The cultural space of the U.S. South has long served as an American repository of disapprobation and mourning, one that can be grounded in removals and diasporas, forced unpaid labor, human interventions in family structures, and violent deeds and institutions. This archive of southern history has been summoned, manipulated, and disavowed for nationalistic purposes, yet its traces linger. Well into the twenty-first century, race violence and racial division still mark a postmodern South of K-Marts and satellite dishes and shopping malls. Contemporary events such as the infamous, familiar noose hanging from a tree claimed by white students at a high school in Jena, Louisiana, reverberate back through southern history, gathering a psychological momentum that carries with it the imaginative reconstruction of other crimes long past and an avalanche of disavowal and mourning. There is a coalescence of cultural memory around such contemporary moments; it is impossible to think of these violent encounters and the places where they occur as dissociated from southern history or literature.

Although such events themselves may be situated in the southeastern region of the United States, the cultural memories that are their living traces lie at the heart of American consciousness and contemporary global concerns, although, as Larry J. Griffin and Peggy G. Hargis's research shows, what is remembered depends on who's doing the remembering. In her introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth suggests that, in an age of catastrophe, trauma itself--and, one might add, a history of trauma--may indeed provide a primary link between cultures (II). One question this special issue raises is whether and/or how these historically and imaginatively imbued cultural memories that are unique to the U.S. South may shape a sense of relation and responsibility to global issues, past and present, of massive human-inflected trauma. Many of the essays in this volume address this question either implicitly or explicitly. For example, in marking a linkage between the traumatic history of the South and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Lisa Hinrichsen's study of Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country illustrates how the novel "interrogates the role memorialization plays in repressing the truth of the past and powerfully raises questions of both southern and national memorial practices. …

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