- Framing the Past: Postmodernism and the Making of Reflective Memory in Art Spiegelman's Maus
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 57, Number 3, Autumn 2001
- pp. 91-120
- View Citation
- Additional Information
JOSHUA L. CHARLSON Framing the Past: Postmodernism and the Making of Reflective Memory in Art Spiegelman's Maus "The impossibility of telling the story, the impossibility of recapturing the historical reality, becomes not only the essential force of Jewish writing today, but the aesthetic formula for all fiction today." Raymond Federman hen art spiegelman's Maus ?: A Survivor's Tale (1991)— the second volume of his Pulitzer prize-winning account, in comic-book format, of his family's persecution during the Holocaust1— made it on to the New York Times' best-seller list, the editors initially placed the work on the fiction side of the ledger.2 They believed, apparently , that a work written in comic-strip style, with humans depicted as animals, could not legitimately be labeled as a true story. Only after Spiegelman himself sent a letter to the Times, protesting his book's placement, were the editors persuaded to switch Maus to the nonfiction side of the list. Spiegelman wrote, in part, "If your list were divided into literature and nonliterature, I could gracefully accept the compliment as intended, but to the extent that 'fiction' indicates that a work isn't factual, I feel a bit queasy" ("A Problem of Taxonomy" 2). In a terse editor's reply, the Times noted that the Library of Congress had categorized the book as nonfiction, and, "Accordingly, this week we have moved Maus ÍÍ to the hard-cover nonfiction list, where it is No. 13" ("A Problem of Taxonomy" 2). The debate over the status of Spiegelman's work should not be seen as simply an example of the obtuseness of the Times' editorial-board Arizona Quarterly Volume 57, Number 3, Autumn 2001 Copyright © 200 1 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1 6 10 W 92 Joshua L. Charbon members. In fact, the discomfort and confusion over the generic placement of Maus points to critical questions about, on the one hand, the way the Holocaust is remembered and given meaning in contemporary America, and, on the other hand, the function and adequacy of various aesthetic forms—particularly those labeled "postmodern"—as frames for Holocaust memory. In particular, what does it mean to render a narrative of the Holocaust in the visual and textual modes of a form often perceived as a debased example of American popular culture? Is there a characteristically American literary response to the Holocaust? And what counts as "truth" when the subject is the genocide of the Jews of Europe? Does the figurative language of literature have any value in the face of concrete facts, documents, and testimonies? Does aesthetic form inevitably and fatally distort the nature of the historical reality represented within a text?' Given the magnitude and complexity of such questions, which this essay can only begin to unravel, the final decision of the Times to let Maus rest in the nonfiction category hardly settles the matter of where, or how, to place Maus. Spiegelman's own words—in particular, his receptiveness to the fuzzy term "nonliterature," and his statement that the work was "based closely on my father's memories"—suggest that he finds the nonfiction label only the more acceptable of two inadequate descriptions of his modus operandi (2). Moreover, critics have continued to debate the work's generic status in increasingly precise terms: many place it within the historical context of American underground comics, or the "graphic novel" (a term Spiegelman dislikes); some, citing aspects of its visual component, consider it as a cinematic text; while still others, given the focus on Spiegelman's efforts to transcribe his father's story, situate Maus in the context of other oral histories and testimonies .4 Interesting and pertinent as these classifications may be, I resist efforts to pin down Maus to a fixed genre. Quite to the contrary, I want to argue in this essay that one of the major achievements of Maus is its very ability to cross conventional boundaries and unsettle oppositions —not only between fiction and nonfiction, but between history and memory, elite and mass culture, visual and textual art, testimony and imagination. Rather than lamenting the "impossibility of satisfactorily specifying the genre of Maus," as one critic puts it...