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Canadian Review of American Studies Volume 23, Number 4, 1993, pp. 113-120 Ambiguities of a Newly Fashionable Concept FredMatthews 113 Michael Kammen. Meadow of Memory: Images of Time and Tradition in American Art and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. Pp. :xxv + 192. John Bodnar. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1992.Pp. xiii+ 296. A couple of generalizations about these two intelligent and interesting books seem as uncontroversial as anything can be today. Beginning from sharply divergent sets of assumptions, they converge to suggest the importance of the protean concept, "memory," in contemporary approaches to cultural history. And, their sharply contrasting approaches suggest the persistence of interpretive differences, which seem also to be generational and political, within the notional community of professional historians. Beyond these points, agreement is likely to vanish, and reactions will follow the readers' own axia of understanding. The rise of memory as an organizing principle in recent years may reflect an effort by historians to acknowledge the force of deconstructionist critiques while retaining their disciplinaryloyaltyto the authority of documentary evidence. By organizing treatments of events in terms of a dialogue between documents and later recollection and interpretation, they acknowledge the inescapable refracting power of the mind, while not repudiating 114 Canadian Review of American Studies the professional faith that there can existan Ur-narrative, a hard core of socalled established fact confirmed by the documents.1 This is not necessarily a naive oxymoron; something like it was the core of Charles Beard's philosophy of history, and we do seem to find numerous descriptive statements about events which are coloured by our prejudices only when we begin to explain them. The best source for "memory" as a category is the March 1989issue of the Journal of American History (volume 75, no. 4), composed of a theoretical essay by the editor, David Thelen, followed by several applications of the concept to varied bodies of data. "Memory" in that symposium seems a fruitful attempt to repackage a number of older ideas, but one displaying serious ambiguities stemming from an implicit uncertainty whether all is endless interpretation or whether reliable data can be established . The use of the term "memory" to embrace both the act of personal retrospection and the collective process of scholarly verification may encourage the easy assumption that the latter can never transcend the former. Kamm.enand Bodnar tend to treat memory as a commonsense given; they do not attempt clear abstract definitions. But, different pictures of the process of developing collective memories emerge from their accounts. To a considerable degree, these pictures are not contradictory; reality is complex and varied, and they are interpreting bodies of data which are largely distinct. Kamm.enworks with a selection of paintings assembled to reveal artists' and patrons' feelings about time and the past, while Bodnar deals with a group of events, ceremonies, and controversies that point out the political and contested nature of "public memory" as a consensus reached only through struggle for power. Clearly, both processes operate; but, the very choice of data and approach may tell us about the contours of contemporary scholarly disagreement. Kamm.en's"images of time and tradition" are assembled as lectures in a museum of art, and the cautious, tentative tone of the text may reflect its origin as the verbal counterpart to a series of magnified images. The book has tried to recapture the visual splendour with 125 illustrations; but it was a major mistake to offer them in black and white, since much of the power and subtlety of the originals is lost in this format. Perhaps it was thought that Kammen's reading of pictures as stories made colour irrelevant. Kammen 's open and pluralistic interpretive stance is more than a spin-off from Fred Matthews I 115 the primal format; it reflects a style characteristic of many scholars, formed in the 1950s-which probably extends chronologically down to the mid1960s --when Collingwood was God and sophisticated multi-dimensionality the interpretive goal. One of Meadows of Memory's goals is to broaden and redefine the notion of historical art, by thinking about "pictures in terms of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 113-120
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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