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Biography 25.4 (2002) 701-707

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Nancy J. Peterson. Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001. 183 pp. + notes. ISBN 0-8122-3594-0, $46.50.

Nancy J. Peterson's Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory seeks, above all, to articulate workable ways of thinking about history in the wake of some of the many "wounds"—the dispossession of Native Americans, slavery, the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, among others—suffered in recent times. Drawing on the work of writers including Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Irena Klepfisz, and Joy Kogawa, Peterson's project is to offer a somewhat different rendition of the postmodern than the one frequently considered. On the one hand, there is no denying the force of the critique of historical objectivity set forth in many postmodern novels, as well as in certain strands of contemporary historiography; the deconstructive moment thus has its place. On the other hand, however, there is also no denying the forceful and often grim reality of history itself: one can be just so playful in the face of the utter degradation or full-scale annihilation of entire peoples. Indeed, as Peterson implies, the sort of postmodern playfulness one finds in a good deal of contemporary fiction can serve as an accomplice to a kind of [End Page 701] amnesia. The task, therefore, is precisely to remember, but to do so in a way that moves beyond those more facile modes of historicizing that too often distort or obscure the lived reality of human suffering.

Peterson speaks in this context of the "double burden" faced by those writers wishing to tell another kind of story than those enshrined in "official" histories. It is "to write both literature and history" (4)—or, to put the matter differently, it is to write history through literature. This double burden, it should be emphasized, owes its existence not only to the putative epistemological shortcomings of traditional history-writing, but to the very depth of the traumatic wounds at hand, which "threaten to exceed clean lines of articulation and comprehension" (7). As Peterson goes on to suggest, one fundamental aim of the writers being explored is to "record historical knowledge that has not become part of America's collective memory in their literary texts." This element of "recording" bears within it an essentially preservative function, and speaks to what might be termed the archival dimension of memory. "At the same time, however," these writers "interrogate whether correcting the record in itself is an adequate strategy to address this problem." Alongside the archival dimension of memory, therefore, there is the constructive or imaginative dimension. As Peterson explains,

Because they are writing literature and not history, they can employ what I term a postmodern poetics of absence and silence to emphasize the limits of recovery efforts. . . . The conventions of history do not allow imaginative speculation to restore the record, and so literary texts are essential, if not to restore the record through speculation, to mark the spaces, gaps, aporias that cannot be filled. (9)

Peterson recognizes the need to proceed cautiously in staking out her own philosophical territory. By her own account, the present work

refuses to collapse history entirely under literature, but instead insists that these texts significantly maintain a productive tension between their status as literature and their status as history, even while they acknowledge the ways in which postmodernism compromises any easy claims to historical representation and referentiality. (11)

There is a further, more openly political aim as well. For Peterson's book "not only insists that [the texts in question] be read as part of postmodernism, but also argues for reconceptualizing postmodernism so that the narratives and issues of concern to women and minority writers are no longer seen as eccentric but as fundamental to the postmodern condition" (11). They are to be seen as postmodern histories, Peterson maintains: texts serving to underscore "the possibility of working toward a theory of postmodernism that [End Page...


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