- Sacred Relics: Pieces of the Past in Nineteenth-Century America by Teresa Barnett
Teresa Barnett’s Sacred Relics analyzes the way nineteenth-century Americans revered objects from the past, tracing a shift in perceptions of what constituted a true historical object. Embedded in this study is an examination of modes of memory that transformed from the sentimental to the historical, a development that the author attributes partially to industrialization but also to emotional and cognitive responses to the Civil War. Key to Barnett’s discussion is the distinction between the “association item” or “relic” that elicits an emotional response to the past and the more scientific “evidentiary object” that provides “hard, analyzable evidence about the specifics of the past” (24). At stake in this divide is what is potentially lost when the discipline of history—based as it is on a rigorous analysis of written documents, and to a lesser extent on objects with observable characteristics—leaves little room for the so-called unscientific relic that does not fit neatly into a synoptic series or a sequential retelling of the past. Professional history of the late nineteenth century, Barnett notes, “was not based on the careful examination of objects; it was based on their repudiation” (173).
Sacred Relics seeks to recoup, in some way, the reputation of the relic as a valid source of historical information. Barnett’s position is straightforward: “Nothing allows us to engage with the past like the substance of the past itself” (196). She attempts to legitimize in a historical context the powerful tradition of object-based sentimental memory that existed in the early part of the nineteenth century, to acknowledge as relevant the ephemeral reverie experienced by individuals of the era who considered matter from the past to be “a conduit to a more immaterial meeting of minds and sympathies” (65). As Sacred Relics makes clear, the cognitive and emotional experience of the past cannot always be contained in language; for literary critics, this is an insight worth keeping in mind as we perform the work of textual analysis.
Barnett begins with an assessment of the curiosity cabinet tradition and other late eighteenth-century antiquarian practices, which she sums up as derivative of collecting practices in early modern England. While this [End Page 622] earlier period is not the focus of her study, there seems to be something missing from this part of Barnett’s discussion—perhaps an investigation of the kind she herself has done of the nineteenth-century American relic tradition. That said, once she approaches the nineteenth century, Barnett’s research is meticulous and wide-ranging. She relies on existing histories of museums and object cataloguing in the United States, and draws on a variety of primary sources: not only relics themselves but letters, diaries, memoirs, and other documents that refer to and reflect on such objects. (She acknowledges that her research is necessarily focused on white, middle-class Americans who had the resources to establish collections and museums, unlike African Americans, Native Americans, and other groups that were not part of the dominant discourse of memory.) Barnett also considers historical spaces—and eventually in the book, recreated historical spaces—to build a multiplatform approach to her discussion of memory. Given its subject matter, this book would feel more complete if it contained a few images of typical nineteenth-century relics; however, there are none, except for a photograph of a Confederate hair relic on the dust jacket.
Interestingly, Barnett’s extended rumination on sentimental culture in nineteenth-century America leans heavily on literature and literary criticism to tease out the major characteristics of the era’s structures of feeling. She also suggests that theories of the new materialism have been “immensely suggestive” for her project, although she does not expound on those theories (4). Similarly, while her book is at its core an examination of historiography and memory, as revealed through the popular practice of relic collection, Barnett does not extensively integrate scholarship from those fields into the flow of her discussion. However, the concrete detail...