American Memory: Thelen’s “Memory And American History”

Storytelling is a tradition in many if not all cultures.  It develops customs, rituals, and a sense of belonging.  Stories teach and entertain.  Oral history also can change because in telling and retelling, facts fade, opinions enter, story tellers incorporate personal perspective, whether intentional or not.  It takes on a life of its own, spinning out into folklore and myth.   Still, history is a retelling of the past no matter in what form it appears.

David Thelen indicates, “The territory between individual motivation and impersonal myth is natural for historians because its obvious units of study are the particular people and groups that have long been familiar objects of historic research” (1117-8).  The restoration of memory can either be an imaginative adventure of recreation or, like Ruskin believes of restoring architecture, this particular restoration can also be the destruction of events as they occured and places as they were.  Thoughts, however, do not become restored in the same way objects do.  Memories spark with scents, sounds, sudden sights that let the human mind flash back to a moment.  In this case, restoration does not seem destructive.  It recreates to the best of its ability.

In American society, memory equals tradition.  Politicians emerse themselves in tradition and call on people’s nostalgia to promote legacy and maintain traditions.  Patriotism is remembering where we came from.  Thelen uses the memories of Viet Nam to show how nostalgia for apple-pie politics worked to support efforts.  However, the soldiers returning from war had a different experience with memory.  Flashbacks and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are the downfalls of memory.  Here a very distinct division emerges: private personal memories of war versus the public recreation of war.

Americana is America.  Pride is glorification of the past.  History is patriotic.

About Christina M. Rau

Poet, blogger, writer, editor, professor
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4 Responses to American Memory: Thelen’s “Memory And American History”

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