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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 426-428

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Literatures of Memory: History, Time, and Space in Postwar Writing. By Peter Middleton and Tim Woods. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester Univ. Press. 2000. viii, 323 pp. Cloth; $69.95; paper, $29.95.

In response to the complaint that late-twentieth-century culture is an age of amnesia that witnessed the end of history, Peter Middleton and Tim Woods offer a wide-ranging study of British and American drama, poetry, and novel writing to assert that new forms of historicism are emerging in postmodern genres and in the transformation of older genres such as science fiction, autobiographical poetry, and urban fiction. Examining their heterogeneity of texts, Middleton and Woods argue that the most interesting new cultural forms for producing history convey an awareness of time and space. In their two-part study, they first investigate the shifting post–World War II conceptualizations of time, memory, and space by drawing upon widely available novels and films, such as Pat Barker's Regeneration, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. In the four chapters of their second section, they examine in detail how British theater of the 1960s and 1970s, avant-garde poetry, science fiction, and novels of the city invented new ways of writing history.

Middleton and Woods's study is motivated by political and ethical concerns that the end of history, especially a realist-based, socially conscious history, signals the loss of the critical awareness leftist critics have frequently taken as the precondition for social change. When history is simply the tracing of a personal past for individualistic or therapeutic ends (the family tree) or the Disney-style marketing of simulated and decontextualized events and souvenirs to legitimate a conservative nationalism, Middleton and Woods rightly ask, what does it mean to speak of historical literature that still works to mobilize collective action or to renegotiate a hegemonic social memory? In addressing these political, ethical, and epistemological concerns about history, Middleton and Woods provide an extensive survey of the late-twentieth-century debates about the textuality of memory, the materialization of social practices in space, the detemporalization of experience in scientific thinking, and the reflexivity of postmodern art. While at times the authors retread familiar ground, the originality of their study—and its usefulness to scholars—is in its impressive encyclopedic reach, its reframing of the fate of history within a broader philosophical framework, and its synthesis of these theoretical insights with close analysis to provide provocative, counterintuitive readings of a number of postwar texts.

This book is so knowledgeable and ambitious that in many respects it can only be described as a gesalt-shifting work that ought to affect scholars in a [End Page 426] number of specialized fields in U.S. cultural studies. In key chapters such as "Memory's Realism," Middleton and Woods offer a thoughtful investigation of the complicated ways individual and collective identities are founded on rehearsed and scripted memories, thus raising questions that should complicate research in the fields of race and ethnic studies. Their postmodern resituating of the "ethics" of history in the "reflexive performative writing of the past" (77) and in the "persistent unfixing of positionality and identity" (78) opens up an important space for identifying possibile political interventions within a number of "non-historical" genres, from avant-garde poetry to experimental science fiction. In arguing that an understanding of history is "incomplete" without an attention to spatiality (309), Middleton and Woods suggest new possibilities for agency within the city walker's unplanned self-activity in liminal and borderland spaces, arguing that the past continues to influence identity through its materialization in our everyday environment. A reader will close Literatures of Memory feeling not only informed but also reassured that historical writing, now encompassed in many different forms, still matters.

While the study consciously limits itself to largely "Anglo-European" fictions, such an investigation of a new cultural poetics of history might have questioned more the insularity of its own spatial self-imagining and its own implied temporal narrative, which assumes a shift...


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pp. 426-428
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Archived 2005
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