LIBRARIES AS A LOCUS OF CULTURAL MEMORIES
Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylvania
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE SPECIFIC PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR. This essay appears [in slightly different form] in Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Liliane Weissberg (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999), pp. 202-230.
In memory of Thomas Lask
This essay considers some difficulties of the relationships between our society's perceived need to preserve its cultural memories and one of the increasingly large and complex bureaucratic institutions, libraries, that contain and preserve them. For the purposes of this essay, memories--cultural memories--are anything you can find in books, in libraries.
They are not only that, of course.(1) Alvin B. Kernan, recalling his youth as a sailor during World War II, clearly distinguishes between two different forms of memory:
Whatever William Peters' memories of Gettysburg may have been, they were and remain private and inaccessible; only through his great-grandson's conjectures can they be imagined. His great-grandson's great-grandchildren, however, able to read Crossing the Line whenever they wish, will have immediate access to their ancestor's memories of naval combat in the Pacific during World War II. Written down and published, they have entered the arena of public and accessible cultural memories in a way that Peters' memories have not.My great-grandfather William Lott Peters served through the Civil War in Company D of the Fiftieth Georgia Infantry--the fact is proudly registered in brass on his gravestone--which fought, among other great battles, at Gettysburg. I have often longed for his version of the kind of personal memories I have tried to write [in the book which this paragraph concludes], but he left no such record. But using the official history of the Civil War, I once traced the movements of his regiment in that battle. It was on the right wing in Longstreet's Corps, and on the second day of the battle, July 2, 1863, it went down in the afternoon from the woods on Seminary Ridge, across the Emmitsburg Road, down through the Wheatfield, pushed to the north of Devil's Den, and stopped finally at the narrow stream that runs along the base of Little Round Top (known thereafter as Bloody Run), as the battle petered out in the darkness. I have walked along that route and wondered what William Peters, nineteen years old at the time, ever found again in the seventy-three years of his long and prosperous life on an isolated Georgia farm to match the experience of that day. Still, it must have remained locked up inside him, having nothing to do with the quiet productive life he lived, but making everything else feel slightly unreal.(2)
Kernan's comment may suggest that the role of the library as an institution dedicated to the collection and preservation of cultural memories is, if cultural memories are defined as I have just defined them, very simple indeed: acquire, catalogue, make accessible, and preserve the books that constitute this kind of cultural memory. I do not think things are quite this simple, however.
In this essay, I begin by looking at a kind of memory that libraries may not be able to contain. I next look at a kind of memory that libraries can--but which many choose not to--contain. I conclude by observing that librarians, and hence libraries, collect and preserve cultural memories far more haphazardly than most library users appear to realize. My two examples function primarily in order to buttress my argument: that librarians' decisions about what shall be contained by the institutions in which they work are frequently accidental and contingent, dependent upon a host of factors most of which are unaffected by any considerations of the significance of cultural memory. The repositories that librarians build are, in consequence, constructions that only partially represent--not "reconstructions" that faithfully re-present--the vast universe of potentially salvageable memories which print and its surrogates have produced.
For whatever reasons, library users almost never examine either librarians' collection-building processes or their results (which is not to say that they never complain about these results). Librarians themselves agitate about such issues, of course. And rightly: these issues are significant. But their examination ought not to be in the hands only of those whose work it is to build library collections--and this is the point of my argument. If, as it seems to me, a culture's recollections depend on its collections, then users as well as librarians need to consider such issues.(3)
I suspect, however, that few people are certain about what they expect libraries to provide. I also suspect that very few people--specifically, very few academics--ever ask such a question. Thinking about libraries is not part of an academic's job. Using them is.
But academics in the historical humanities depend on libraries. The degree of this dependency is normally unstated and only marginally admitted. It is dispiriting for academics to notice that their ability to pursue easily a line of inquiry depends in a most literal sense on what non-academics--librarians--decide to acquire and catalog; how they organize, shelve, and reveal the presence of the materials they have acquired; and how successfully they prevent the materials they have acquired from ceasing to exist. Yet, as they do these things well or ill, librarians make teaching, studying, and research and scholarship possible--or impossible. No library collects all, or even a large fraction, of the possible materials that document all our many cultures' many memories. How do their staffs choose from among the vast possibilities they confront? Academics rarely ask.
A library, an archive, a museum, or another analogous repository is an institutional context at once social, bureaucratic, and responsive to its own imperatives. In most institutions of higher education, libraries are inadequately housed, understaffed, and poorly financed; by and large, national and public libraries are in no better shape. At the time this essay is being written, improvements that would depend upon improved financing for such institutions seem an increasingly distant and unlikely prospect. Increasing numbers of books and journals, to say nothing of manuscript and archival collections, seek admittance to library collections, but too few employees are able to select new or retrospective acquisitions with an expertise that academics recognize as academically respectable or have time for genuinely considered selection decisions. "Selection" is itself an aspect of librarians' work frequently left unanalyzed, unproblematized, even by the academics who are most at its mercy--and even though, as I have argued elsewhere, the selection process is deeply problematical, deeply suspect.(4)
One last word about procedure. I address academic library users most particularly but I do not write about an academic subject; I am concerned instead with an academic place, a university library where people work. I assume throughout the usefulness and the validity of an anecdotal and personal approach to a discussion of how the work performed in this place affects the availability, even the survival, of the cultural memories which the varied labors of students, teachers, and scholars may examine.(5) I write in a generally colloquial style that will, I hope, discourage either a romanticized or a mystified view of my topic.
I begin with an example of the sort of information--"cultural memory"?--that will not be found in libraries or in the books they contain.
In 1967, Dutton published a novel "by Helen Hudson" called Meyer Meyer. I first read the book that year in the copy which the person to whose memory this essay is dedicated, Thomas Lask, loaned to my parents. He had reviewed Meyer Meyer for The New York Times,(6) for which he was once a daily book reviewer and where he was also a member of the reportorial staff and poetry editor during the years when the Times printed a daily poem on its editorial page. Tom Lask had been my father's student in high school during the 1930s. They and their families remained friends through their own and into their children's (my) generation. When I was growing up, our families lived in apartment buildings across a street from one another and were very close.
Meyer Meyer offers a critical, feminist view of a male history professor. The author depicts his behavior, amorous and otherwise, with his students, colleagues, and mistress, an artist, as selfish and unpleasant. Largely forgotten, the book nonetheless has much to recommend it. Its acerbic view of its central character, somewhat severe for the time, would now strike most readers (I think) as relatively mild. Both ordinary readers and historians interested in how the revived American women's movement of the 1960s found new literary expression (the novel postdates Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique by three years) would find it readable. Readable or not, however, the book has some documentary significance for the history of feminist American literature in its period as well as for its depiction of academic life and mores.
The author's name on the book's title-page--"Helen Hudson"--is a nom de plume. As recently as 1988, the latest reference I have found for her, its author lived in New Haven, where she continued to write. She was also married to a professor of political science at Yale University, Robert Lane.(7) Thomas Lask may not have known who "Helen Hudson" "really" is when he reviewed the novel. He did know, but could not say in print, that it tells (imagines?) a tale about other real people.
Its title character, Meyer, was modelled closely on another friend of my father's, a Brooklyn College history professor named Solomon F. Bloom. Hit and killed by a bus at Broadway and 116th Street when he was at Columbia University in 1962 to present a lecture,(8) Sol Bloom was one of my father's childhood friends; they had known one another since Sol's emigration from Europe shortly before World War I. Like Tom Lask, Sol Bloom was part of the adult orbit in which I was raised; and Sol and Tom knew one another through their mutual friendship with my parents.
Another of Hudson's characters was modelled on Bloom's long-term mistress, a sculptor from Orange, Connecticut, who also taught at Yale (I think), named Olga. I never knew--and, despite inquiries to the Yale Archives, have not yet learned--Olga's last name. At Yale, one supposes, she had got to know one or both of the Lanes.(9) A third character was modelled on a colleague of Bloom's, the late Samuel J. Hurwitz, with elements, perhaps, of Moses Rischin (now a Professor of History at San Francisco State University), as well.(10) As a teenager--I believe in the summer of 1958 or '59--I visited Olga's home in Orange with my parents and Sol Bloom, an occasion I remember in part because that was also my first visit to New Haven and Yale.
My mother read Tom Lask's review of Meyer Meyer. As she later told me, she suspected immediately from what his review managed to say about the novel's characters that the book concerned Sol Bloom (about whom, as it happens, her feelings would have been closer to Helen Hudson's--if Meyer Meyer represents those views accurately--than to my father's). Curious, she called Tom with her suspicions. He confirmed them and loaned her his review copy. She read it, gave it to my father to read, and then gave it to my wife and me to read, too. Not only did we then live in New Haven, where my wife was a graduate student at Robert Lane and Olga's university, but also I had known Sol Bloom. We did read it; and we now have our own copy of the book.
What does one do with such "knowledge"? What status does it have as knowledge? How do I even know, why should a reader believe, that any of this is "true"? In truth, even for me it is all hearsay--and I have met, as almost none of my readers can have done, almost all of the people just mentioned (with the exceptions of Samuel J. Hurwitz and Helen Hudson). If anyone thinks this stuff is knowledge, it is still worth asking how any library might contain it. My reader may happily grant (is it not merely obvious?) that Meyer Meyer is a book which an academic library with a responsibility for documenting the history of American women's fictions (or academic novels; or just plain old American literature) might want to have. But would my reader also agree that a library which owns the book ought also to possess somewhere a text about it which includes such highly speculative, unpleasant, personally damaging, and unfounded gossip about it as this?
Why not? Modern editions of eighteenth-century novels or poems, as is also "merely obvious," are always provided with such contextualizing annotation. The Dunciad is unthinkable, in any of its myriad forms, in a modern text that omits any effort to identify the "real" human beings whom Pope pillories. We can not imagine such a beast. Neither, indeed, could Pope, although he might not have foreseen annotations of his own annotations. Yet such annotations do no more than I have just done, pulling together and presenting a mixture of truths which include both documentable "facts" (Bloom as a history professor at Brooklyn College) and the kind of "gossip" (Olga as Bloom's long-term mistress) I have just purveyed about people referred to in Hudson's novel. They recall "cultural memories" (even though most people do not share or keep these specific memories within their own individual memories) that mingle, indiscriminately, memories with completely different referential statuses: "Bentley" as famous textual scholar vs. "Bentley" as pretentious horse's ass. Editors and scholars go to libraries for the information they can dredge up to bring such memories back to some semblance of life for those--our students, our colleagues, even, occasionally, ourselves--who find it necessary or pleasurable to read works such as these once in a while. Editors and scholars do not doubt that such notes are necessary; for textbook purposes, if not for critical purposes, almost no one doubts their utility. Teachers will, of course, wonder if their students really pay as much attention to these notes as they hope they do. They should also wonder (but, in my experience, rarely do) if those students who do pay attention will then uncritically misunderstand annotations which gather together and present Pope's mixed cultural memories by reading them as if they were "the truth"--a distillation of "our memories"--about such people as, say, Bentley or Cibber.
For such notes, generations of scholars have ransacked both published works and unpublished letters, diaries, and journals, seeking just the sort of gossip I have here provided--without cost in time or labor to anyone--for Meyer Meyer. Uncorroborated, however, my information must remain suspect. What would constitute corroboration? Sol Bloom, Olga, and Sam Hurwitz, primary witnesses, and Tom Lask and my parents, secondary ones, are all dead. Should I write Ms. Lane--"Helen Hudson"--and ask? I have written to Professor Rischin, a slight acquaintance; his reply, as I have already remarked (n. 10, above), was, while perfectly polite, completely uninformative. Yale's Archives has provided neither Olga's last name nor any other biographical information about her. Unless the novel excites interest from later generations of readers, documents which might provide corroboration--Hudson's correspondence or diaries; Sol Bloom's; Olga's; Hurwitz's; Rischin's (if any of these survive)--will never be searched. And, of course, if those sources have not been or do not get saved in libraries, searching them is likely to be impossible. Whatever confirmatory or contradictory information they might have contained will never rise to the level of anyone's (let alone "the culture's") memories.
And yet, will our understanding of a fiction not be enriched or altered if we are allowed a peek at some of the materials from which its writer constructed that fiction? I have phrased this question to suggest that "yes" is the only answer it can receive; but such a "yes" cannot, in fact, remain uncontested. My question elides some extremely basic questions about how we read fictions. To what degree, for instance, does "insider" knowledge of a book's genesis affect the ways in which we read it, especially by comparison with readers who lack the "inside" perspective? Argued in other terms, this question was a staple during the days when the then New Criticism was attempting to supplant a more traditionally historical approach to reading. In the tradition in which I was trained, the opposing views on such matters were presented with crystalline clarity by Douglas Bush, Historian, and Cleanth Brooks, New Critic, arguing with one another about how best to understand the depiction of Oliver Cromwell in Marvell's "Horatian Ode."(11) They are not simple views nor are they simple to decide between. Of course memories can inform reading; and perhaps they should. Yet memories get lost, the urgency of what they were supposed to recall gets transmuted --or just muted--with the passing of time, and at some point or other a future generation is no longer able to pick up on the conditions out of which a work was born and to which it tries to speak. No longer knowing what it has lost, that future generation and its successors may read the book anyway (finding other things of value in it?); or, no longer knowing what it has lost, it may instead simply discard the book from those it keeps in its consciousness as works that matter and remain worth collecting and reading. Thus, for these as well as for other reasons, do works drift in and out of "canonical" status over long periods of time.
My implicit "yes" to the question whether information concerning its genesis will affect our understanding of a work assumes something else the significance of which is by no means obvious. It derives from the (only partially illusory) tangibility of the sheer stuff with which a librarian deals: both the physical copies of the book in which Meyer Meyer is embodied and preserved and the documents, whether they exist somewhere or not, which I have imagined might exist and which, if they did, might contain material which would "confirm" or "contradict" my remembered (constructed?) excursus on one aspect of the book's (possible) genesis. Had we the book alone, discussion of its genesis would be neither possible nor relevant: the book would be read or forgotten for other reasons. But had we as well the additional documentation I have imagined might exist--and which I have reconstructed without documentation from memory--then the sheer presence of such stuff, in some collection somewhere, would eventually make a scholar happy as it emerged from its Hollinger boxes into the light of day. Thus would these documents affect understanding of the work--whether or not they should do so; for of course the tangibility of documents is only an inert fact about them, not a reason to think that they help readers decide between ways of reading fictions elaborated by either Douglas Bush or Cleanth Brooks. Granting this objection, tangibility is nonetheless something to be reckoned with: I am reminded that, as Richard Terdiman appositely notes, "normally objects have an intimate relation to remembrance" (p. 13). Of the objects we call books and papers--that very tangible "stuff" with which librarians work--this relation is especially characteristic. Everything in the world, as Mallarmé said, exists in order to end up as a book.(12)
I want to begin this section by quoting a poem which deals with memory while leaving its author unidentified, at least for a bit--although if the reader must look at my footnotes, the author is there identified. This is, after all, a paper which uses much of the apparatus which print technologies long ago generated to relieve readers of the anxieties caused by some of the fallibility of human memories. Surrounded by print, we call this apparatus "documentation" and rely upon it as a prophylactic against drowning in that sea.
The poem, called "Meditation on a Bone," bears an initial note. Somewhat obliquely, the note explains that the poem was occasioned by its author's encounter with a reference to "A piece of bone, found at Trondhjem in 1901, with the following runic inscription (about A.D. 1050) cut on it: I loved her as a maiden; I will not trouble Erlend's detestable wife; better she should be a widow."
The poet, born in 1907, produced work that lies well out of the stylistic mainstream of modernist poetry.(14) Nonetheless, I have enjoyed and read it ever since, early in the 1960s, I first encountered it. I did so thanks to another review by Tom Lask in the daily New York Times of the poet's Selected Poems (New York: Viking, 1962)(15)--indeed, as with Meyer Meyer, I first read the very copy of the Selected Poems that Tom had used for review and then passed to my parents. His review was a wild rave--one of very few wild raves, or even notices, for a book of poetry which had appeared in the daily book review columns of the Times in then living memory.Words scored upon a bone,
Scored in despair or rage--
Nine hundred years have gone;
Now, in another age,
They burn with passion on
A scholar's tranquil page.
The scholar takes his pen
And turns the bone about,
And writes those words again.
Once more they seethe and shout,
And through a human brain
Undying hate rings out.
"I loved her when a maid;
I loathe and love the wife
That warms another's bed:
Let him beware his life!"
The scholar's hand is stayed;
His pen becomes a knife
To grave in living bone
The fierce archaic cry.
He sits and reads his own
Dull sum of misery.
A thousand years have flown
Before that ink is dry.
And, in a foreign tongue,
A man, who is not he,
Reads and his heart is wrung
This ancient grief to see,
And thinks: When I am dung,
What bone shall speak for me?(13)
People who worked for the publisher, Viking, were astonished. In those days (as, one presumes, now), a good review in the Times sold books. This, not merely a good but a positively glowing review, extolled a book which its publisher had not expected to receive any notice at all. Speaking by telephone a few days after the review's appearance with a person at Viking--as Tom later told me the story--he was warmly thanked for his notice; in fact, the person told him, Viking had, the very day the review appeared, put its printer on alert to await the rush reprinting which would be required by the interest the Times's review was naturally expected to generate. Some time after that first conversation, Mr. Lask continued, talking once again with his acquaintance at Viking about an altogether different matter, he learned that the publisher had been forced to conclude that these hopes had been somewhat over-optimistic. Whatever difference a rave in the Times might make to sales of a novel or a work of non-fiction, its impact on sales of poetry proved non-existent. The publisher was unable to detect any sign that the Times review had affected what it had originally projected as the likely sale of the book.
None of my readers is likely to have a memory so bad that this story will prove even moderately surprising. Even though some of us once specialized or still specialize in the study of poetry, we all know its marginal role in modern literary culture, even if we are so courageous or benighted as to attempt to "teach" poetry to students in some academic setting or another.
Has any reader yet recognized the contemporary poet whose work I have quoted? I am making a (rhetorical) bet that a large majority will not have done so; and this bet provokes me to a small bizarrie. In an autobiographical memoir published in 1992, the unnamed poet wrote about a literary hoax which, its readers are told, they will recall so well that only a few details will instantly bring it back to mind: it is, as the poet remarks in passing, part of "common history." Really? I ask. The poet is writing--alas, in language that displays neither the dispassion nor the charity for which we might have hoped from a writer by now both long in years and heavy with honors--about "the famous Ern Malley Hoax."(16)
Yet, if you are like me, even as you grasp its drift, you are nonetheless wondering: who are these people? Max Harris? John Reid? The one who died in Russia spelled his name differently and was surely too early in the century anyway; could this be the same person who wrote the biography of John Quinn?(18) And who are Stewart and McAuley? If you are like me, you love the target magazine's title, Angry Penguins--would anyone dare to make up that title for an avant-garde periodical in a novel? But, like me, you've never heard of it. In fact, if you are like me, you have, till now, heard of none of this stuff, none of these people, at all. This is, it would appear, a case not of failed memory: it is a case of sheer ignorance. And not, I think, just my own ignorance.. . . it was by mere chance that I became involved in the hoax. An arrogant and stupid literary magazine was jointly produced by Max Harris and John Reid under the title of Angry Penguins. It aimed to be more avant-garde than most progressive theories of the day[, . . .] among these Surrealism. . . . [The poet recalls setting about concocting faux-"surrealistic" poetry for this magazine and being quickly warned off this project by some "ingenious friends" who already] had invented poor Ern, using Stewart's sister's address from which to send to Max Harris a semi-literate letter posting supposed poems and some covering matter. Max fell for it at once. The poems, composed in one idle afternoon at the office, [were] supplied with a mish-mash of all the then popular avant-garde theories of poetry, surrealist vomit, Marxist propaganda, `obscure' so-styled intellectual verse, free verse techniques, multiple meaningless references to irrelevant objects, pictures, ideas and what have you. They then roughed up the papers to make them appear to have been written over some time and sat and waited until Angry Penguins exploded with two numbers hailing Ern Malley as the greatest poet of our day. . . .
Finally the news [of the hoax] was released and the rest belongs to common history. Both here and abroad there were a number of eminent critics whose faces must have been very red. Max Harris and his friends tried to put a good face on it by claiming that McAuley and Stewart were simply mistaken . . . (17)
But I am concerned not by the vagaries of individual people's knowledge but rather by "libraries and cultural memories." Even readers who have adhered to my request and avoided looking at my footnotes till now have at least seen that they are there and guessed that I am not making this stuff up out of whole cloth. Quite so; but this is not material the majority of us was ever taught. No one will ever test us on it, few of our colleagues think it matters in any way, we don't have to know it. It may be someone's "cultural memory"; but it isn't ours.(19)
It is now time for identifications: the "we" in the preceding paragraph is by no means universal. The poet and memoirist is A. D. (Alec Derwent) Hope. He grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, was educated at Sydney, earned a second (bad) university degree at Oxford, and spent the rest of his professional life in Sydney and Melbourne. He has published numerous books. They have won a number of awards but very few people read them--they are, after all, mostly books of poetry or literary criticism. Most of those who do read them are Australians.
The hoax about which Hope writes in his memoir concerned a literary periodical published during the 1940s in Adelaide. I can locate a copy of this periodical at my near neighbor, Pennsylvania State University, where there happens to be a Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies. But my own institution was far from unique among American libraries in failing to own it (I have been able to add at least one of the relevant issues since work on this essay began). Only after 1994, when our Library cataloged Michael Heyward's study of The Ern Malley Affair, published and acquired in 1993, could we teach this episode in the history of English-language surrealism or literary hoaxes even had we wanted to.(20) By and large, however, we don't want to. People in Sydney, Melbourne, or Adelaide may have the inestimable advantage of speaking, and, it would appear, of writing in a language of whose fundamental seriousness for literary purposes we can be in no doubt. Nonetheless, they rarely do so in a way we notice.(21)
The majority of those who, for one reason or another, in one way or another, care for "English literature"--either because we get paid to teach this subject to young people or to write, or to buy, books and periodicals which are in some way of or about it for the libraries which young people and their teachers use--or who, perhaps, merely read what we can of the stuff with an airy or ignorant disdain for its place of intellectual origin--do not bother much about Australian English literature, unless we are Australians or, perhaps, New Zealanders. Were we for any reason otherwise inclined, the state of our library resources does not permit us the option, by and large, in any case. Can one imagine why this state of affairs--so normal that, really, even to point it out must seem slightly deranged--might matter to anyone at all? Thomas Kenneally, who has recently succeeded Patrick White in the "Australian writer we notice" category, owes much to the happy accident of having ascended to the attention of metropolitan Mr. Spielberg; he now spends a semester every year in Los Angeles. A. D. Hope has ascended, outside Australia, to very nearly no one's attention, except Tom Lask's and mine.
Really, we cannot--and, of course, we do not--expect our libraries to concern themselves with most of what passes for culture throughout the world. And this is only as it should and must be. Otherwise, their shelves, already cluttered, would collapse.
What these two examples indicate first of all is our uncertainty--my uncertainty, since I have no right at all to assert through a linguistic trick any scope whatsoever for my views or my doubts--about what constitutes a "cultural memory" in general or a "cultural memory" specifically fit, first, for a library and, second, for its users.
Some things, known to others, are unknown to most of "us": who wants, who needs, to know them? to learn them? Terry Caesar recalls an Israeli poet's comment about the difference between himself and W. H. Auden: "I have to be aware of him, whereas he doesn't have to be aware of me."(22) "We" are "Auden," of course. Hope and the creators, dupes, aficionados, and historians of the Ern Malley hoax, by contrast, are all in the position of Caesar's Israeli poet. They do--they have to--know about us: we are metropolitan. Their very hoaxes respond to us. By and large, we know nothing about them: they are provincial. We don't feel the worse for not knowing anything about them.(23)
Some things are unknown to anybody. Who besides me--now that Sol Bloom, Olga, Samuel J. Hurwitz, Tom Lask, and my parents are all dead, and without "confirmation" from Helen Hudson or Moses Rischin (whatever such confirmation might consist in)--knows about the "historical" background to Meyer Meyer? Who--since my readers now know about it, too (if you trust my memory)--cares? Who has read the book? who will read it? There is relatively little a librarian can do about the kind of lacunae represented by this example. Meyer Meyer is probably typical of a great many novels that, presented to their readers as "fictions," are made in significant measure out of their writers' perceptions about the lives of "real" people, including themselves, whom they know. Unless documentation survives to link those real people with the fictional events of the novels in which they appear, however, readers, students, teachers, and scholars will never know about such extra-fictional referents. The significance of their ignorance will be slight. Most of these books, as has been true of most other books of all sorts throughout history, will disappear from consciousness without ever attracting either a search for such documentation or even just plain and simple attention. There is some potential here for a self-confirming argument: because scholars are not struck by questions about a book's relation to its author's milieu, it may die of neglect more quickly than it should. Who can tell? Our library's shelves are full of books unread for this reason--and for many others. Some deserve rediscovery. Who will find them? Who is even looking, unimpelled by a specific (nowadays usually gender-, class-, or race-based) agenda? (And in any case, what do my shoulds and deserves in these last sentences actually mean?)
Because there is relatively little that librarians can do about such lacunae, there is not, however, nothing we can do about them (if we agree that these lacunae ought to concern us in the first place). An essay such as this one represents at least one thing that one librarian can do. Others include writing inquiries, where they remain alive, to people one suspects of having been a writer's models, or to authors, seeking additional information. (I have tried the former course; I have thus far lacked the temerity for the second.) In fact, many passionate collectors and enthusiasts do just this. Upon their efforts to gather all possible data relevant to the subjects they collect, many of our great research collections depend. We normally distinguish collectors from librarians and, while we tend merely to ignore the latter, we too often positively malign the former, stereotyping them, for instance, as mere rich accumulators who remove materials from public accessibility for no reason other than self-aggrandizement through property-based and sentimental association with the outer trappings of "culture." That without their enthusiastic interest and willingness to invest their own funds--indeed, without their sheer knowledgeability--many materials that seem ephemeral and of no interest to others would perish is not always something that scholars or librarians bear in mind, although both benefit clearly and directly from such activities.
Collectors practice their propaedeutic to scholarship, however, on a model analogous to an extreme free market economy. Utterly unregulated and without joint or cooperative planning, they acquire and gather together materials on the basis of purely individual decisions. Thus, a few enthusiasts may be interested in a relatively obscure writer named Franz Kafka while almost none is interested in another more or less contemporaneous obscure writer named Robert Walser. Volumes of Kafka's "ephemeral" writings survive and have been published; these fill out and illuminate Kafka's more narrowly defined "literary" works and represent a major enhancement of what readers can bring to bear in thinking about the writer and his work. What, by comparison, happened to Walser's ephemeral writings? Is Kafka "better" or "more important" than Walser? We all know better than to ask such a question: who could ever imagine, or provide, an absolute answer to it? And what does it mean anyway? Writers are not playing some kind of sport; literature is not a zero-sum game; to value Tolstoy requires no one to denigrate Dickens. But there very definitely is an objective, materially-based answer to it: in this sense, what has survived of the works of both writers, as well as the tortuous routes both took to publication, makes Kafka the "more important" writer without any doubt at all. We are now no longer likely to retrieve any materials that might enable or encourage general readers and specialized scholars to reconsider Walser's claims upon our attentions.(24) The sheer accident of an author's attraction of early sympathetic attention has, in this example, as in surprisingly many others to which we no longer pay any attention,(25) a major impact upon what scholars and readers read and value.
This accident has its analogue among those people charged formally (as collectors are not) with the creation of research library collections, librarians. As a library collection officer, I pay attention to Helen Hudson and A. D. Hope as the result of a personal history that few other people who do what I do in other libraries can possibly share. They are, of course, doing the same with other writers, other writing cultures, that my colleagues and I routinely overlook in acquiring materials for the library that employs us. An army of people doing the acquisitions work we all do and whose idiosyncrasies balanced one another might--in a world also characterized by unlimited budgets--create truly comprehensive libraries that enabled scholarship to proceed unhindered by selectors' blindnesses or prejudices. No library is able to afford the payroll such an army would require (or the space to house the materials they would bring in); each is thus at the mercy of selectors with blindnesses, prejudices, and idiosyncratic backgrounds and enthusiasms just as peculiar as, though differently peculiar from, mine. This situation might not matter were library users aware of and able to correct for such inherent biases; or were they interested in interrogating library institutional practices (as they interrogate the practices of many other of our society's institutions) that justify, by seeing them as if they really are "inherent" biases, what may not need to be inherent at all. But most readers, most scholarly and academic readers, never think about such questions at all.
My second example seems to me less understandable--less excusable--than my first. It stresses in an even more obvious (because more wholesale) way the role of accident in the construction of research libraries. As my reader will by now have noticed, this is the second point my two examples exist to suggest, following upon uncertainty about what constitutes anything we might call a cultural memory at all.
The general lack of interest in the provincial is not new. American literature itself long suffered under this general excuse for its dismissal (above, n. 23). Even today no one needs to look as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, or the Caribbean for examples of English-language writers whose works and history--this at many English-language universities with serious pretensions as research-supporting institutions and active and productive Departments of English--students cannot study or teachers teach. Works defined as "regional" or "generic" simply do not get selected for inclusion in library collections. At the library of the university from which Zane Grey graduated, how many westerns are part of the library's collection? or books of any sort published in Salt Lake City or Reno by publishers other than the universities located in those two cities? How many books are stigmatized (and hence uncollected) by library selectors because they can be subsumed under rubrics that consign them to automatic oblivion: "science fiction," "mysteries," "romances," "bestsellers"? In terms of their collecting interests, how many American research libraries find the literature of anglophone Canada (to say nothing of francophone Canada) to be just as distantly compelling as that of Australia?(26) There are exceptions in all of these various categories, of course, but the exceptions are just that: they are unusual. They result from geography (Canadian institutions collect Canadian writers; Nevada institutions Nevada writers); from odd institutional contexts (the existence of a center for study of Australian and New Zealand issues at Penn State); or from odd institutional selectors (one who, for instance, has read A. D. Hope, suspects that there may be more at home like him, and thus bumps into Judith Wright and Lily Brett--"like" him because they are Australian?!--or another who, having read Joanna Russ, has never been able to dismiss science fiction from his selection concerns). The exceptions, in short, result from accidents. The collections which those accidents produce are contingent upon the presence, and continued existence, of non-institutionalized selection practices and practitioners able, in their acquisitions, to follow up on their own partialities as well as to acquire the obvious, the mainstream, and the central without which selectors are invited to seek alternative employment.
If, as Mary Warnock writes, personal identity is a function of an individual's memory, then a society's identity may similarly be considered as at least partly a function of its retrievable cultural memories. "Cultural memory" is a concept which needs far more definition than I have bothered to give it here. The plural "-ies" ending in my title indicates that I think there are many such memories. I hope I have also indicated that I imagine no single "culture," out of the many in which we are embedded or by which we are surrounded, that is an uncontested monolith. I have concentrated on literature, with the assistance of two minute examples that happen to be peculiar snippets from my own knowledge, simply because it is "my field" and because both examples (dependent as they are upon a specific family relationship to a book reviewer for The New York Times) happen so perfectly to suit my argument. Countless other examples illustrative of the multiple operations of contingency in library collection-building might have been used, from this, from related, or from altogether different subjects.(27)
All memories--personal, societal, cultural--are a construct. Neither a single individual nor a single institution can remember everything or provide for total recall. Individuals, institutions, academics: all choose what is worth remembering and on the basis of their choices construct their personal or cultural memories and identities. But they can do so only from among the materials made available to them by circumstances and opportunities for choice that are only partially under their own control. Those materials are the result, that is, of a construction--of many constructions--made prior to the individual's, the institution's, or the academic's.
How individuals construct their own memories is not my topic. I am concerned rather with the almost completely unexamined nature of the constructs which, by their acquisition decisions, librarians who staff libraries (and, what is even more obscure to most academics, the employees of specialized library book vendors) build, as they go about the quotidian task of selecting and acquiring the materials that constitute the library collections with which present and future scholars work and upon which they will continue to rely. Daily, these selectors accumulate the materials from which contemporary cultures' memories will be gleaned. Quite literally, they construct those memories with each item-by-item decision about what is and what is not worth acquiring and preserving. How they relate materials to one another by their classification systems and subject analyses will also affect how and what memories can be recalled. A vast bureaucracy exists to build the research libraries on which scholars depend. That bureaucracy is almost completely unstudied, not by its own constituents--whose noses are constantly to be found stuck in their own navels--but rather by those whom it ostensibly serves. This despite the fact that, increasingly, those scholars whom it serves have come to recognize how other bureaucracies and social organizations, especially those with functions which can be broadly grouped together as intellectual or ideological, demand scrutiny and interrogation. Academics pay so little attention to the libraries in which they pursue their work, however, that even to speak of libraries and (worse) librarians as outside the control of academics, and thus uncontrolledly choosing what it is academics are able to attend to, must raise a prospect which is, at first blush, disgustingly improbable.
Meanwhile, what is in most danger of getting lost while the process remains unexamined--can this possibly come as a surprise to anyone?--are those books which might have preserved as "cultural memories" texts, discourses, which are overtly resistant, transgressive, disapproved, or just plain marginalized. Even at a time when far more attention is paid such works than had traditionally been the case until very recent times indeed, relatively few scholars work with the books that preserve such discourses. Thus relatively few library vendors or selection officers seek them out. Those that may do so often do so only within the few areas where they have found some reason or prod in the oddity of their own backgrounds or interests to do so. Thus I may pay attention to chronologically now somewhat removed women novelists, poets, and dramatists and to Australians. Other selection officers with special interests in lesbian pornography, travel writers, or Anglo-Indian literature will strengthen collections with which they work in these specific fields. Few people complain. Fewer still consider that decisions made in this way, day in and day out, have a long-lasting, perhaps permanent, impact on what survives to become a "cultural memory."
Every decision to buy a book is, consciously or unconsciously, a decision not to buy many other books: financial and space constraints make every acquisition decision contestatory in nature. Academic indifference (or the appearance of such indifference) to the institutional practices which determine acquisitions decisions results in the "normalization" of the collections that libraries accumulate. The gap between what is published and what is collected does not lessen, it widens, from year to year--as does the gap between the collected conventional and the uncollected unconventional. This gap has consequences for what "we" can remember and teach. Every student, teacher, and scholar in the historical humanities today knows that this is a time when study of the scattered, disregarded, unedited, or unrepublished materials that still live in this gap is providing the substance for what is proving to be some of the most exciting (and literally reinvigorating) historical and literary scholarship of our time.(28) Almost none has noticed, however, that almost all "research" libraries are perpetuating this gap for future scholars to struggle against. Accidents are not method; they do not "cancel each other out" in some mystical way. The institutional structures through which libraries collect materials which will ultimately be part of the memories that document our own age need analysis. They need it not only from those who work within and accept as givens the constraints of these structures but also from those who retain the capacity to be surprised by those structures--perhaps even to find them annoying.
I proceed from the direction of "memory," not "culture," but I know that writing is not the only repository for cultural memories and agree that culture may be defined (far more broadly than what I say here about writing and books) as "the nonhereditary memory of the community" (Yuri M. Lotman and B. A. Uspensky in "On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture," NLH, 9 , 211-232 [p. 213; quoted in Richard Terdiman, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 3]). Much of what is nonhereditary is preserved and transmitted in ways that have nothing to do with libraries. Books, repositories of written memories, clearly contain and preserve a special subset of memories of all sorts. Edward Shils, Tradition (1981; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), is one of many studies to consider forms of cultural memory broader than those I am concerned with here.
James Fentress and Chris Wickham, writing in Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), are quite explicit about this point: "people use books as only one out of many sources for their representations of the past. Writing on one level transforms memory, by fixing it; but. . . . no society is an entirely literate culture, including our own (and even including the heavily text-oriented microsocieties of academics); and shared memory, whatever its sources, tends to be communicated above all in the arena of the oral, through anecdote and gossip, with narrative patterns that can owe as much to oral as to literate tradition" (p. 97). Recent support for such views is found in, e.g., Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall, Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991); and Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994). Nonetheless, in our society, a very great deal of "culture" is also stuff that you have to look up--and to look up in books that most people rely on finding in institutions that exist for this purpose, libraries. Consideration of books in their institutional setting is thus highly relevant to issues of cultural memory; and these issues are, themselves, of concern not only to scholarly but also to general public discourse.
Both Marling and Wetenhall and Buruma indicate both this currency and the interplay between written and non-written forms of memory; but I cannot resist citing a striking example of the currency of these matters that appeared as I was revising this essay for publication. In a single section of a single issue of The New York Times (January 26, 1995), I found: (1) a front-page article by Henry Kamm, "Poland Reawakens to Its History as Communism's Mirror Shatters: Reclaiming the Past" (pp. A1, A10), about efforts to reconstruct a sense of Poland's recent national past now that "history . . . [need no longer be] falsified to justify Soviet dominance"; (2) Jane Perlez, "Separate Auschwitz Services Highlight Jewish-Polish Disputes: A question that will not go away: Impressions vs. history" (p. A10); (3) Eric Schmitt, "80 Lawmakers Demand Ouster of Director of Air Museum" (p. A12), on controversy aroused by the text intended to accompany the proposed exhibition, at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, of Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima; (4) a letter to the editor by theater critic Eric Bentley on the ways in which memories of the often indecorous behavior of members of Britain's royal family have been distorted over time ("British Royals' Antics Are Hardly New," p. A20); (5) an editorial, "Remembering Auschwitz" (p. A20); and (6) Frank Rich's column about the controversy aroused by the "National History Standards" produced by the National Endowment for the Humanities, "Eating Her Offspring" (p. A21).
Underlying all this interest in memory--Henry Ford's notion that history is bunk to the contrary notwithstanding--is, of course, our sense that memory is implicated not only in the past but also in the future. See Michael Perlman, Imaginal Memory and the Place of Hiroshima (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 3 et passim, who makes this point with impassioned force.
Alvin B. Kernan, Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's World War II Odyssey (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 166-167.
Mary Warnock, Memory (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), deals with memory as an individual phenomenon, ascribing the value we place on memory to its contribution to people's sense of "personal identity" (p. vii et passim). She does not consider memory's social or cultural aspects. Only a librarian, I fear--a person who must consider what his society and culture will manage to remember--would notice that her publisher has printed her book on paper so acidic that, a bare eight years after the book's publication, both cased and paperback copies show severe discoloration and embrittlement. Concerned that people have continued access to her book as a representative intellectual product of its times, that librarian wonders how to preserve it.
A short essay by Peter Burke discusses social and cultural memory, its converse (which he calls "social amnesia" [p. 106]), and the dependence of both on "conscious and unconscious selection" and "[socially conditioned] interpretation and distortion" (p. 98; on p. 108, he mentions "the social organization of forgetting" [my emphasis]). However, Burke never discusses the major "social organization" in his world (and ours) that is the primary repository for the memories (and forgettings) he studies: libraries and archives. See his "History as Social Memory," in Memory: History, Culture and the Mind, ed. Thomas H. Butler, Wolfson College Lectures, 1988 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 97-113. Rather more alert in this respect is Arthur C. Danto who, in "The Shape of Artistic Pasts: East and West" (in Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory: Appropriating Historical Traditions, ed. Patricia Cook [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993], pp. 125-138), notes how important was the lack of art museums--"that crucial institution," Danto calls it; and it is clearly analogous in its functions to libraries--for an eighteenth-century Chinese artist, Wan Shang-Ling, trying to work in the tradition of fourteenth-century artist Ni Tsan.
See "What Good Is an Old Book?" Rare Books and Manuscripts Librarianship, 7:1 (1992), 26-42.
To one of the charges used to discredit such an approach--"anecdotal individualism"--I plead guilty. In collegiate and university academic institutions, however, where most other sorts of displays of hierarchically-based dismissive superiority are (at least for the nonce) generally disapproved, it remains easy for faculty to regard librarians as a particularly disreputable form of "the other": shelvers, re-shelvers, checkers-out, and book stampers, librarians--in this view--are people who do think you can tell a book by its cover and, as a result, frequently know no more about books than the color of their covers; or, at best, people who, every so often, prove willing to order the odd good book an academic person wants (if the academic person remembers to tell the librarian to do so). Thus, although my resemblances both to women and to women of color would, in most contexts, leave a certain amount to the imagination, I nonetheless find myself able to empathize quite well--at least, in the context within which I spend my working hours--with something of what Patricia J. Williams means when she writes, explaining her own devotion to "anecdotal individualism" (p. 6): "Since the self's power resides in another, little faith is placed in the true self, in one's own experiential knowledge. It is thus that children's, women's, and blacks' power [and librarians'?] is actually reduced to the 'intuitive' rather than to the real: social life is based primarily on the imaginary" (The Alchemy of Race and Rights [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991], p. 63). More entertainingly, for the congenitally mordant--although because of its length not quotable here--see Williams, pp. 44-51. See also Michel Foucault: "Whenever I have tried to carry out a piece of theoretical work, . . . it has been on the basis of my own experience, always in relation to processes I saw taking place around me. It is because I thought I could recognize in the things I saw, in the institutions with which I dealt, in my relations with others, cracks, silent shocks, malfunctionings . . . that I undertook a particular piece of work, a few fragments of autobiography" ("Practicing Criticism," in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman [New York: Routledge, 1988], p. 156).
Thomas Lask, review of Helen Hudson, Meyer Meyer (New York: Dutton, 1967), The New York Times (March 6, 1967), p. 31.
See the article on Helen Hudson (s.v. "Hudson, Helen") in Contemporary Authors, 123 (1988), 219-220.
See his obituary in The New York Times (January 7, 1962), p. 76; his funeral is reported two days later (p. 47).
A later novel by Helen Hudson is dedicated to "To the memory of Mary and Olga" (Farnsbee South [New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971], dedication leaf [p. (vii)]). I can only guess that this "Olga" is the same person who figures as a model for Meyer's mistress in Meyer Meyer.
Hurwitz and Rischin edited a posthumous collection of Bloom's papers, A Liberal in Two Worlds: The Essays of Solomon F. Bloom (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1968). Rischin's response to a letter of inquiry I sent him about the people in Hudson's book avoided replying to any of my questions.
See Brooks, "Marvell's 'Horatian Ode,'" originally in English Institute Essays, 1946 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), pp. 127-158; Bush, "Marvell's 'Horatian Ode,'" Sewanee Review, 60 (1952), 363-376; and Brooks' reply, "A Note on the Limits of 'History' and the Limits of 'Criticism,'" Sewanee Review, 61 (1953), 129-135. William R. Keast reprinted these essays (with the titles I have followed here) in Seventeenth Century English Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 321- 358. His 1971 second edition omits them entirely.
" . . . tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre" (Stéphane Mallarmé, Écrits sur le livre (choix de textes), préface Henri Meschonnic, Collection philosophie imaginaire, no. 3 [(Paris:) Éditions de l'éclat, 1985], 5.5 [p. 131]).
A. D. Hope, Collected Poems 1930-1970, A&R Modern Poets (1966; rpt. North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus and Robertson, 1977), pp. 96-97.
Hope's self-conscious "insistence on metrical formality, stanza forms and rhyme" becomes the starting-point for the useful brief discussion of his work by Andrew Taylor, "A. D. Hope: The Double Tongue of Harmony," chapter 6 in his Reading Australian Poetry (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1987), pp. 70-84.
Thomas Lask, review of A. D. Hope, Selected Poems (New York: Viking, 1962), The New York Times (April 2, 1962), p. 29.
A. D. Hope, Chance Encounters, with a Memoir of A. D. Hope by Peter Ryan (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1992), p. 91. Hope describes the Ern Malley Hoax on pp. 91- 94. See, generally, the recent study by Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber and Faber, 1993).
Hope, Chance Encounters, pp. 91, 93.
Heyward spells this name "John Reed"; Hope may merely have got it wrong. No matter for me: I would still not recognize the name.
The Ern Malley Hoax was not completely unknown outside Australia; it proved a brief diversion for the American and British press in late 1944 (see Heyward, pp. 162-3) and, at the beginning of the 1960s, Harry Mathews (an American writer then editing Locus Solus in Paris), and, in New York, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, were all interested in "Ern Malley's" poetry (Heyward, pp. 232-4). Scholarly references outside Australian works which show their author's knowledge of the hoax are difficult to find; I have also failed to find examples of "Malley's" poems in standard anthologies. In view of my argument here about who pays attention to whom, it is notable that Heyward attributes "Malley's" revived influence on Australian poetry to the promptings of American interest in the poems (p. 233). Danto (n. 3, above) speaks usefully about the question of "who is the agent and who is the patient" in the matter of artistic "influence" (pp. 130-131; he quotes--as I do, from him--Michael Baxandall on this point).
1993 also saw republication of Ern Malley's Collected Poems, with commentary by Albert Tucker, et al. (Pymble, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1993).
So hopelessly upside down are some antipodean critics that they seem to feel Australia to be sufficient unto itself. Thus, for example, John Docker has actually suggested that Hope's "dilemma" is that "he cannot relate himself to the Australian society and nature around him," "only half-jokingly" calls it a "barbarous" land, and finds "Europe . . . the only and abiding reality for the spirit" ("The Image of Woman in A. D. Hope's Poetry," chap. 3 in his Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual Traditions in Sydney and Melbourne [Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974], pp. 43-44).
Terry Caesar, Conspiring With Forms: Life in Academic Texts (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), p. 149. See, similarly, Williams, Alchemy, p. 28: "There is great power in being able to see the world as one will and then have that vision enacted. But if being is seeing for the subject, then being seen is the precise measure of existence for the object."
I owe thanks to Patrick Buckridge, who teaches Australian literature at Griffith University (Brisbane), and who tells me that, when he teaches Australian literature of the 1950s, he includes literature and history which refer to McCarthy, Dies, the Hollywood Ten, and other American events of the era. Can anyone even begin to imagine an American teaching a class on American literature of that decade supposing, for even the merest flicker of a moment, that an Australian reference or text might be relevant?
The things "we" do not need to know are legion. "Pushkin, a historian as well as a poet, . . . told the tsar that he wanted to write about the eighteenth-century peasant leader Pugachev. The tsar's reply was brutally simple: 'such a man has no history'" (Burke, "History as Social Memory," p. 107). Thus class. Here geography: "[Stranded by the Second World War in Australia, the English scholar J. I. M.] Stewart . . . created a minor controversy in 1940 when, after being asked to lecture on Australian literature, he declared the category did not exist" (Heyward, p. 66).
Stewart was speaking in the direct line of pom descent from Sydney Smith who, writing in the Edinburgh Review of December 1818, remarked: "Literature the Americans have none--no native literature, we mean. It is all imported." In January 1820, in the same journal, Smith continued in this vein: "In the four quarters of the globe, Who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play?" I quote Smith from Jay B. Hubbell's relentlessly--and, I hope, consciously--hilarious book, Who Are the Major American Writers? A Study of the Changing Literary Canon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972), p. 4.
I owe these examples to Siegfried Unseld's The Author and His Publisher: Lectures Delivered in Mainz and Austin, trans. Hunter Hannum and Hildegarde Hannum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). See especially, on Kafka, pp. 24-27; and, on Walser, Unseld's final chapter, pp. 191-273. Although Unseld compares Kafka and Walser from what seems to be a strikingly different point of view from mine, looking mainly at how their relationships with their publishers affected their writing careers and their lives, I think his point not very different from mine at all. The implications of his comparison are directly relevant to a consideration of the ordinarily unexamined role of contingency, of accident, in determining what we come to value and think worth preserving towards which I am building.
The locus classicus for English literature is almost never remarked upon in quite this way, for the very nearly (literally) sacred as well as merely literary canonical status of the author in question simply removes such concerns far beyond our capacity for either question or doubt. Nonetheless, even if only as a mere thought experiment, try to imagine what we would know about--and thus read as and value in--the "works" of William Shakespeare if we did not have the results of the pious early intervention into the preservation of his texts of Heminges and Condell, who edited the 1623 folio. Enough of the printing history of this book is known so that we can say that the presence in it of Troilus and Cressida and the absence from it of Pericles--to give only two obvious examples--are both accidental. That arguments continue to swirl about the attribution or non-attribution to Shakespeare of a good number of other plays testifies not only to the power of his authorial name but also to the tinge of deep uncertainty that still touches many of the attributions of plays now commonly accepted as his.
I am grateful to Germaine Warkentin, of the University of Toronto, for communicating to me a diatribe on the subject of American views of Canada and its history. We have, on other occasions, spoken about American attention to Canada's literature, which occasionally attains to the tepid--and which the sorry state of Canadian literature, as represented in American research library collections, is unlikely to prompt Americans to reconsider in the near future.
I had thought at one point, for example, of looking up all the books by someone named Traister which most research libraries do not have. A large number of them are by a Traister named Robert, whom I do not know, and purport to instruct their readers in how to use various personal computers and computer programs. "Cultural memories" indeed! I would argue, of course, that they are indeed "cultural memories"--and of a very valuable sort, in fact, for they document some of the ways in which our society has accommodated to a new mechanism with which many people have in a very short time learned to live and work. Awareness of the quotidian effects of the automobile, now generally known if as yet incompletely understood, means that handbooks for the owner of a Pierce-Arrow or a 1913 Minnesota roadmap do "count" as the stuff of "cultural memories." Robert Traister's various guides to early versions of the p.c. have the same potential.
Does such a statement require documentary justification? Just consider, as one example, the reinvigoration of our sense of what "counts" as "American literature" that has resulted from our changed sensitivity to what African-Americans, women, and the political left have all contributed to that construct. Cary Nelson's Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory 1910-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) undergirds this essay in many more ways than one. Alan Wald puts his finger on what may be the single most crucial reason for that support in his very helpful 1991 review of Nelson (it appeared originally in the Minnesota Review and appears now in Wald's collection of essays, The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1992), pp. 126-130. Here Wald remarks: "a key lesson of Nelson's book is that partisans of cultural, economic, and political equalitarianism cannot count on the internal dynamics and networks of extant institutions to preserve even the most rudimentary material artifacts of oppositional cultures"; thus "they need to find new ways to . . . produce counter-institutions of cultural memory of their own" (p. 130). I would like to think of this essay as a small contribution towards the interrogation of current practice upon which the creation of such "counter-institutions" will depend.
send Traister e-mail concerning this page at
You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at email@example.com.
Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.
Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.