Such holidays are one of the ways we imagine and refashion our history, one of the ways we create “collective memory.” (The Lincoln Memorial, which I recently revisited amidst throngs of tourists, illustrates another tool – monumental statuary – for shaping collective memory.)
Initially propelled by Union veterans’ desire to memorialize their fallen comrades, Memorial Day (also once called Decoration Day) expanded to cover the fallen of both sides in the Civil War. Expanding the holiday was one of the ways that Americans sought, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to reconcile and reintegrate the South. A past in which the Blue and the Gray dead were equally brave and honorable served a present need. That reconciliation, at the same time, suppressed memories of the slavery which brought on the war.
The politics of shaping collective memory around Memorial Day was mild compared to some of the struggles we have recently seen about how Americans should understand the American past.
Building Collective Memory
Historians and sociologists have in recent decades studied how Americans – authors, politicians, film-makers, businessmen, local town boosters, and others – over the centuries shaped memories of the past. (See books by Michael Kammen, John Gillis, and John Bodnar.) James Fenimore Cooper’s novels helped form a “memory” of America’s pristine wilderness and of the noble savage who roamed it. Politicians and the merchants of Plymouth turned a rock into a sacred, “Plymouth Rock” account of the nation’s founding. Wild West shows and dime novels in the 19th century formed the sort of historical cowboy who in the 20th moved bestrode movies and television. Minstrel shows and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind contributed to remembering — at least until the 1960s — plantation-land “Dixie” as a smiling, harmonious society. And so on.
That some of these accounts are in part or whole not factual seems beside the point. For example, the European settlers of early New England spoke of the land as a “desert wilderness” that they could righteously improve. Since the early 19th century, romantics instead described that 16th-century land as having been naturally pure until having been despoiled by farming and industry. Early New England was probably neither wasteland nor Arcadia. The native peoples had long worked over the land, periodically burning forests and even hunting animals to extinction. (See this study.) But the “memory” of an earlier, untouched nature may help marshal support for environmental protection.
Historical memories are not only created, they are revised and refurbished; they also wax and wane in popularity. Even the image of Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s greatest icon, has had its brighter and dimmer moments (as described by Barry Schwartz).
Fighting Over Collective Memory
Collective memories and the stories behind them guide – or so many partisans on both the Left and Right assume – the way Americans understand and then act on the issues of today. Intense struggles break out over how those memories ought to be constructed or rebuilt.
Consider the fight over the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. It was a struggle over whether Americans would remember Martin Luther King Jr. as a liberator, or as a troublemaker, or not at all. Who won that struggle would, in turn, affect how we would remember the pre-Civil Rights era: as a shameful period of unfairness that the nation overcame, or as a period of proper social order that was undermined by agitators. The holiday, the children’s books about King, the across-the-aisles piety around him have settled that struggle (at least for now). The first story is now canonical. The latest to-do over Virginia’s Confederate History Month shows, however, that the contest continues.
During the early 1990s, the publication of proposed, new “national historical standards” for K-12 schools set off a firestorm. Liberals argued that the new guidelines would finally, honestly tell the stories of oppression that were part of America’s past and would at last fairly credit women and racial minorities for improving America. Conservative critics, led by Lynne Cheney, charged that the proposal pandered to minority interest groups and described its overall approach as too tragic, too critical of America. One of them wrote [pdf], “A nation grown cynical about its own history soon ceases to be a nation at all.”
The school battle continues, of course, in, for example, this month’s vote of the Texas Board of Education to insert conservative content into history textbooks. And advocates on the other side push to have minority students more often “reflected” in textbooks and curricula – more Harriet Tubman and less Alexander Hamilton, for example.
Where Stands the Researcher?
There are two general stances scholars take to the construction of collective memory (aside from documenting that it happens). One, more popular a decade or so ago, claims that all recorded history is constructed, none of it is “true,” and that we are all partisans. That is, there is really nothing except contested viewpoints to history. The other stance – the posture, obviously, of this blog – asserts that there is a real, factual history. It is often hard to find and our view of it is often distorted by our politics. Nonetheless, it is worth trying to peer through those veils, to get a clearer vision of the past.
One justification for this second position is that, in the end, an accurate story serves us better than a fanciful one – although the historical truth of that assumption is yet to be established.