What We Choose to Remember

President Joe Biden gave an address Monday night to memorialize the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, according to the official tally. I am not saying anything novel when I say the event played to Biden’s strength as a politician. His ten-minute address was filled with empathy as he spoke about how lost loved ones remain with the living, about how we have to remember lost loved ones rather than becoming numb to the pain, and about how we should carry their memories forward into in our actions.

Biden’s first month in office has been spent activating the government bureaucracy that had been allowed to atrophy in the past four years, so while there are many people understandably angry about the vaccine rollout, distribution is heading in the right direction. This was a somber moment marking a systemic failure, but the address also worked to model best practices and encourage people to turn their grief into action.

It was a good speech, for what it was.

Several times in the address, Biden reiterated a line from the ceremony the night before his inauguration to remember 400,000 deaths, that “to heal we must remember.”

In Biden’s role as Mourner-in-Chief, this was a powerful line that tries to use collective trauma as a catalyst to unify the country. It asks people to think about their loved ones and turn that memory into thoughtful, considerate behavior where individuals take responsibility for the safety of everyone. Certainly, this is a believable sentiment coming from someone who has lived with loss almost his entire political career.

Nowhere in the speech did Biden ask his audience to remember anything but their lost loved ones.

On the one hand, this specific event was not the place for a discussion about accountability. Merrick Garland as much as said that an investigation into the events of January 6 where a lynch mob stormed the Capitol would be his first priority as Attorney General and other inquiries into the events of the past year will unfold over the coming months.

On the other hand, remembering the loss without also remembering why they died is cold comfort. I understand the impulse to not stoke what talking heads on any number of cable news channels might decry as partisan anger, but transparency and accountability are very different from partisanship. The one seeks to rebuild the infrastructure and trust in institutions by applying rules equally, irrespective of party; the other sees the world only in terms of friends and enemies.

I have a lot of sympathy for President Biden right now. He is attempting to walk a fine line and live up to his casting as a man who could unify a deeply-divided country. The result is events like this one where he can strike an empathetic note and talk about healing while trying to restore the government bureaucracy into something that actually works for the citizens of the country. However, may of the forces dividing the country are outside of his control and have been building for years to the point where anything he does, however centrist, is going to be labelled socialist. A Newsmax host even attacked Biden’s dog compared to past presidential pets.

Cultural memory always entails a push and pull between remembering and forgetting. These memories are malleable and open to manipulation. While working on an article about Ancient Greece in the pre-pandemic times, for instance, I read a lot about the historical memory genocide in Rwanda, where the ruling party led by President Paul Kagame has consciously shaped the memory of its role in ending the genocide in order to secure political legitimacy. By contrast, after a particularly brutal civil war in Athens in 402/1 BCE, the Athenians swore an oath of reconciliation that required both sides to “not remember” what had happened, formally renouncing reprisals.

But I also fear that the emphasis on remembering framed in terms of the personal grief and loss risks forgetting that these deaths weren’t just something that happened. These people did not die because of some avoidable happenstance. We only reached this mind-numbing number because of specific actions and inactions.

President Biden is right: we cannot forget those who died, and already people are beginning to discuss what form COVID memorials ought to take. But we ought to also take stock of what we are choosing to remember. For my part, I would love to see a Vietnam War-style memorial to commemorate the dead and also agree with the former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith that local memorials dedicated to both COVID and the surrounding events of the past year would be appropriate. But I also believe that any memorial on its own would be inadequate. Remember the dead, yes, but also remember how we got here.

Beloved

Except for an occasional request for color [Baby Suggs] said practically nothing––until the afternoon of the the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

Toni Morrison is an author who has been on my radar for a long time, but despite using the Nobel Prize for Literature to build a reading list and wanting to diversify my intake I have always found reasons to read something else instead. I have struggled with a lot of books set in the American south, for one, and her books just didn’t seem to be my speed––whatever that means, these are excuses. Morrison’s recent passing inspired me to rectify this oversight.

Beloved is a novel of two places, each with two phases, linked by Sethe––wife, mother, slave, freedwoman, murderer.

124 is the first place, once a refuge for former slaves outside Cincinnati and now where Sethe and her daughter Denver live with the ghosts.

The second place is Sweet Home, a bucolic plantation where Sethe had been a slave before fleeing with her family.

Two arrivals shake 124 from its dismal, spiteful routine. First comes Paul D, a man who had been a slave with Sethe at Sweet Home years past. Second comes the ethereal Beloved, a young woman who seems to have appeared out of the Ohio River. With each arrival Sethe gets further lost in the world of memory. Paul D reminds her of Halle, the father of her children and chosen husband, and of Sweet Home. Beloved, who Sethe associates with her dead baby with “beloved” carved on its headstone,” reminds her of the trauma of 124.

The main thread of Beloved begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and longer since Sethe gained her freedom, but this is very much a novel about the lasting impact of slavery. The older women of 124 (Sethe and Baby Suggs, her husband’s mother) physically wear the carry the marks on their bodies, yes, but how Morrison writes the psychological scars is what sets this novel apart.

The most obvious example of these scars––and one that only deepens as the novel progresses––is Sethe’s decision to kill her infant her former owners track her down. This is obviously *the* central scene to the book, but smaller moments were equally revelatory. Some are expected having read about slavery in the United States. Racism from abolitionists, broken and lost families, casual sexual violence (albeit not from an expected angle). Others were less expected, such as Baby Suggs’ preoccupation with color once she is free and realizes she is allowed to have opinions about such things or the disconnect between the names the white slave owners use and the names that the enslaved people want to have.

What stood out most to me, though was how Sethe and Paul D remember Sweet Home.

Sweet Home is repeatedly referred to in glowing terms. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The Garners, the original owners of the plantation, are generally remembered positively. They treat their slaves well, never beating or raping them, valuing their skills and opinions, and even arming the men to let them hunt. They don’t force Sethe into a sexual relationship, but allow her to have one with the man of her choosing and allow Halle (that man) to hire out his services so that he can purchase his mother’s freedom.

The Garners’ benevolence stands out because, after Mr. Garner’s death, a relation known as Schoolteacher takes over management. His opinion is that the Garners have been too lenient, and begins beating the slaves, restricting their movements, and employing any number of implements, including semi-sexual violations. Saying Sweet Home turned sour understates the toxicity of the change and underscores the depths of horror that slavery enabled.

But Morrison also uses this island of blessed tranquility to demonstrate the grotesqueness of slavery. Even with impossibly benevolent owners, slavery dehumanized the enslaved. Within the confines of Sweet Home the owned had a dim shadow of freedom, but they are isolated and still living their lives for the benefit of their owners. Whatever goodness the Garners have is forfeit by their participation in this system.

Beloved is not necessarily a book written with me, a white man, in mind. I frequently like a voyeur even while I was swept away by the power of Morrison’s prose or was caught by a turn of phrase that made me reread a sentence, paragraph or page. Yet, this discomfort is exactly the reason that people like me ought to read this book. Morrison simultaneously breaths life into the expected jagged wounds of American history and upends any usual assumptions.

If the purpose of literature is to liberate us from our own experience and build empathy, Morrison succeeds in spades. Beloved is spectacular and deserving of every accolade it won.

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I have been snowed under for the past two weeks with the start of the fall semester and have for the most part chosen to read rather than write here. In this stretch, and speaking of discomfort, I have finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which is a powerful look at her weight and am now making my way through Eric Rauchway’s Winter War, which is a really well-written look at the political gamesmanship between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between the 1932 election and Roosevelt’s inauguration.

Girl At War

War came to Croatia in 1991. For the adults, it marked an abrupt shift, but for ten-year-old Ana Jurić it causes subtle changes to her daily routines, a reflection of her parents’ fear rather than something that had to do with her. But these changes slowly press inward and soon threaten the life of her sickly little sister Rahela, who needs medical treatment available only in America. They succeed in getting her out, but at a cost that causes the war, previously abstract and distant, to crash home on Ana.

Such is the opening to Girl at War, a novel that explores the consequences of this violent disruption. Ana escapes to America and the family that took her sister Rahela (now Rachel) in adopt her as well. In suburban America Ana buries her experiences and pretends to be normal, filling her life with boys and school. These memories resurface in college. While reading novels about the trauma of the Holocaust, Ana runs into someone she knew back then and agrees to speak before the United Nations about her experience in the Balkan War––not as a soldier, but as a child with a gun. Suddenly the past is present. Ana’s relationship with her boyfriend Brian deteriorates and she resolves to return to Croatia.

Ana’s first stop is to reconnect with her childhood friend Luka, who takes Ana on a pilgrimage to the parts of her past that even he doesn’t know about: the scene of a crime, the town where she fought, and the vacation home where she hopes to find her godmother alive and well.

In what is, at its core, a straightforward story, Nović captures the jarring transition from carefree childhood to sudden responsibility and terror, with a dash of the absurd (the Croatian militia Ana falls in with name everyone after Hollywood action heroes). But what stood out to me about Girl At War is its treatment of memory. Rachel never knew herself as Rahela and has no memory of Croatia or the war; Ana couldn’t escape her memories, so instead buried them deep. She hopes to find resolution in going home, but instead learns that she is not alone. By the early 2000s Croatia is at peace, but the healing is superficial. Even before returning to the the scenes of her particular traumas Ana sees lingering signs of the war everywhere, and the resonances grow stronger the closer she comes. Ultimately there is no resolution, Girl At War says, only experience.

Girl At War is Sara Nović’s debut novel, which makes its sensitive treatment of memory remarkable in its own right, but my copy included an interview with the that added several wrinkles.

First, there is a sense of remove to Girl At War and Nović says that it is not her own story, but a composite story of Croats she knows. Rather than detracting from the story, however, this serves to make this specific story universal.

Second, Nović talks about the experience of writing a novel while deaf. In particular, she says that she has a particular difficulty writing natural-sounding dialogue, being someone whose experience is so different than speech. Without reading the interview, I wouldn’t have known. The dialogue is not exceptional, but it is perfectly acceptable literary dialogue. In retrospect, though, Girl At War catches on vivid visual and tactile details in a particularly effective way.

In sum, Girl At War is an effective novel that is simultaneously easy to read and a raw exploration about the lasting legacy of a collective trauma.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am about halfway through Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Red Haired Woman, which, so far, is a return to form. At the midpoint, it is a simple novel about the clash between modernity and tradition, urban and rural, and a story about coming of age, but it is also a book invested with mystery that particularly defined Pamuk’s early books.

A Dead End Lane

Τhere is a “dead end” sign where I don’t remember there being one before. The road just ended. In practice, that is. Officially, the dead end is where the maintained road turns into a long-since overgrown class-4 road still drawn old maps.

Returning to the rural hilltop where I grew up always makes me think. The sodden smell of decaying leaves is comforting, even when accompanied by the dull whine and sharp bite of hundreds of insects. But for all the familiarity of the dirt roads turned into tunnels by fifty shades of green, there are subtle changes. There are more signs, for one thing. The roads have names and the turnaround for the school bus is labelled with a warning to anyone who would think to park there. There are also more houses. Big houses, brought visibly close to the road, in place of the small, frequently ramshackle habitats sitting in clearings carved from the forest.

Below the hills, other parts of town are the same way. The elementary school is still there, its doors open with just under fifty students, but so is the old general store building that has simply decayed since it was shuttered close to twenty years ago. The radar traps are new, flashing a warning to drivers who ignore the speed limit through a village that seems more than a little irritated at being ignored, but unable to do much about it.

People ask me about where I come from whenever I return from these trips. Vermont is a curiosity to them, an edenic wilderness that defies the modern world or a bastion of progressive politics epitomized by a frazzled-looking white man with a thick Brooklyn accent. (When Sanders first moved to Vermont in the 1960s it was to Stannard, a nearby town where several of my high school friends lived.) It is, after all, the birthplace of Phish and home to Bread and Puppet.

Vermont has certainly earned these reputation in recent decades, with a left-leaning congressional delegation and the early recognition of homosexual partnerships. My general read on these things is that politics in Vermont that there is a strong libertarian streak and that the intimate nature of politics in such a small state helped get the delegation repeatedly re-elected more so than their voting record, with the state historically having been a bastion of Republican politics. (Between Civil War and 1988, Vermont’s electoral votes went to a Democrat once, in 1964.) Its reputation, moreover, ignores the backlash against the civil union law that went into effect in 2000, the so-called “Take Back Vermont” movement—not to mention an ugly history of bigotry that includes a small but virulent anti-Catholic strain of the KKK in the 1920s. More recently, when students proposed that Vermont adopt a Latin motto there was outcry from people who believed that “Latin” meant “Latin American”. Their mistake speaks volumes both about the makeup of the population and some of the limits to the education system, despite generally positive rankings.

These are young forests. The foundations of farmhouses and lines of stone walls are common sights when walking in the woods, serving as a reminder that the state was largely deforested in the 1800s. In some ways things haven’t changed much. From the right vantage point, the granite quarries still stick out as scars against the wooded hills and agriculture remains a significant part of the economy, even as forests have reclaimed the fields.

In truth, these things work hand in hand. Vermont’s isolation and economic challenges, particularly in the corner where I grew up, lead to poverty, but also make it an attractive destination for artists and back-to-the-earth types. The result is a population that is in flux, with a percentage of the population having been born in-state below the national average.

I haven’t lived in Vermont for more than a few months in a year since starting college in 2004 and haven’t lived there at all in a decade. I can’t remember the last time I talked to an elementary school classmate, but receive periodic updates. Some are doing well, but I more frequently hear about the ones who have struggled with drugs and the law. One died earlier this year. (I do better with people who weren’t in my specific class, as well as people from high school.) Time passes, places and people change as variations on a theme. I would like to move back to Vermont, should the opportunity present itself, but that seems like a remote possibility right now. At the same time, growing up in a rural town that had its largest population in the 1840 census informs what I do as a historian and teacher.

Writing this from my couch in Columbia, Missouri, I fear that I lost my thread. I wrote the opening sentences of this post on my phone from that wooded hilltop where I had no cell reception. All I had were a few lines, a couple of observations about the dead-end dirt road I grew up on, then and now, and a sense of omen about a sign that I couldn’t quite put my finger on . I still don’t know the conclusion, except that a launch pad is a dead end of another form.

Anecdotal History

It is easy to look at Archaic Greece or the mythic history of ancient societies and be incredulous at the role ascribed to the nomothete, whether those laws given are the product of divine fiat (Moses), or the reasoning of one wise man (Lycurgus or Solon). Even Polybius, who notes that Rome came to its ideal constitution through trial and error seems to buy the idea that Lycurgus crafted the Spartan state that, until it decomposed, required only minimal modification. It is possible to look at the gradual development of governmental systems and, for instance, how Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus collapses a century or two of constitutional development into a single lifetime, sometime back before living memory. The one magnetic personality attracts this accreditation for the development of something, and may have been canonized at a time when the situation they are credited with is either in place or on the wane–i.e. when there is a compelling interest to explain a particular state of affairs and then perpetuated or expanded upon at later times for similar reasons.

These developments are themselves fascinating and worth studying on their own merits, but a True Story version of institutional or legal history would seem to require making the history dull by excising the characters. Anecdotes reveal something about the larger theme and are particularly prominent in biography–as Plutarch says in his life of Alexander, a quip or small act can be more revealing as to the character of the person than are the great battles.† Likewise, one of the ways to humanize a big idea is to use a person (sometimes through a series of vignettes) as a case study.

The class I TA for uses a reader does this through a pair of individuals who share a number of characteristics, but differ on one or two key issues. One of these pairs was Ellen Richards and Emma Goldman, trying to explain various approaches to the position of women in the 1910s. The short answer identifications on the last exam (who/what/where/when/how/significance) included Emma Goldman. There were some really good answers, though only a few people noted her immigrant status and fewer still discussed her anarchism and deportation. Instead, anecdotally at least, students gravitated toward her role in support of women’s rights, protections for homosexuality, and her thoughts on birth control. The most common answer given for her significance was “without E.G., we wouldn’t have birth control today.” I suspect that this was, to an extent, a cop-out answer when nothing else became immediately evident– [[we read about her so she’s important, they didn’t have x then, but we do now and she supported it, ergo…]], but I do not believe that the answer is merely the product of stress-induced, lazy test logic or an inability to grasp the nuance of historical process (though the former should not be totally dismissed, either).

A chronological timeline is misleading and barring a tardis‡ coming for you or a wealthy billionaire scientist, etc, there really only is the present, the past exists only in physical remnants and memory. The former decay, the latter are notoriously flawed. I suspect that the process by which the development of the current state of affairs–particularly where one has incomplete information–are collapsed into a single actor are completely natural. This doesn’t mean that the answer was correct in the most basic historical sense, but neither is the “modern mind” with a glut of facts and rationality immune to the perpetuation of these myths. Sure, this itself is just one anecdote, but it is still something worth thinking about instead of, say, dismissing it as a primitivism that needs to be indoctrinated away and forgotten. Each has its place and time.

† How historical anecdotes are is open to debate, however.

‡ note, I do not watch Dr. Who.