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Biography 25.1 (2002) iv-xi

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Autobiography & Geography:

Miriam Fuchs


When the cottage that housed the Center for Biographical Research and Biography was demolished last year (and the offices relocated), surprising details of our own history were revealed. The building had a more complicated history than we had ever considered (though admittedly we hadn't given the matter much thought). We learned that it had never been just a funky cottage, nor just a picturesque corner of the university campus. The most extreme narrative turned out to be one of ecological disaster, for the walls had been eaten by termites, the floors made dangerous by dry rot, with lead and asbestos making any plans for renovation out of the question. (In the editor's note to the Spring 2001 Biography, Craig Howes included a photo of the cottage being bulldozed into rubble, noting wryly that the event is part of someone's official "restructuring" process.) A less extreme narrative, and one that we were aware of, was institutionally based. This one began in the 1960s and linked the building to the East-West Center, an organization for cultural exchanges in the Asia-Pacific region. But we also learned, entirely by chance, that there were earlier chapters to this version. In fact, the new information altered the institutional narrative by infusing it with private and community-based stories. This happened when a senior professor, giving a talk at the CBR, remarked casually that he and his family had actually lived in the cottage; he then proceeded to retrace the current interior back to the domestic configuration he remembered from childhood. And there was more. The cottage had been surrounded by other cottages, all occupied by families that comprised a small community unto itself. The families were now dispersed, and all the cottages but "ours" razed long before anyone in the audience could recall.

The irony, of course, is that it took the demise of our building and our geographical relocation for a rich collection of historical, institutional, autobiographical, biographical, ethnographic, and oral histories to surface. While it often takes just such an event for archeologists to begin their work, in this case the people at the site were themselves committed to collecting and teaching life narratives. So the irony extends further, as a reminder of what [End Page iv] life writing scholars usually take for granted—that their subjects have multi-leveled, hidden stories, and that some of these emerge through utterly random clues and events. Another irony, now, is that if we wanted to acknowledge the collective histories that took place on this plot of university landscape, it would be impossible do so. Unlike places of memory that Pierre Nora discusses as lieux de mémoire, this site has few prospects of becoming a formal commemoration of its history. In the future there won't be a plaque, like the one in the essay that Jennifer M. Lloyd describes finding when she revisited the Cornwall farmhouse in which she grew up. Nor will there be an archive devoted solely to its own history, like the one Katrina M. Powell used to research the Appalachian families who were displaced when the Shenandoah National Park was created. There are undoubtedly institutional plans for the UH cottage area, but in the meantime the landscape looks like a postmodern inversion of lieux de mémoire. There is scant evidence that anything significant ever thrived there. Yellow tape and a temporary fence isolate the area and bring to mind the dead whale in Susanne Antonetta's essay, which drifts onto the shoreline of Bellingham, Washington. The local authorities respond by wrapping the corpse in "crime scene tape," thus indicating its importance to the community while making the small piece of shoreline totally inaccessible.

The essays in this volume reflect similar tensions between geography as topographical/geological formations and as socially and culturally constructed landscapes in the sense that Simon Schama explains the term in the early pages of Landscape and Memory. Schama traces the Dutch and Germanic variants (landschap and landschaft) to make the point that landscape has traditionally been associated with human...