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Reviewed by:
  • Memory's Nation The Place of Plymouth Rock
  • David S. Shields (bio)
Memory's Nation The Place of Plymouth Rock. John SeelyeChapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998Xv, 699, index.

Are historians suffering from abbreviated attention span? One wonders reading the initial reviews of John Seelye's magisterial survey of the representation of Plymouth Rock, Memory's Nation. The common plaint is that the book is too big, too elaborate, too detailed. A strange way to greet the most powerful demonstration of the constructed character of American origins published in recent memory. Seelye has documented chapter and verse each reinvention of the rock that has emblematized the tradition of the Pilgrim origins of American civic culture. Historians who permit their lack of interest in that tradition to convince them that such an exercise is unimportant fail to grasp the great contribution that Seelye has made to understanding the process of "the invention of tradition." Perhaps Seelye's disinclination to use the language of Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger when commenting on the process does not make him appear sufficiently reflective. Yet Hobsbawm's lexicon is not quite germane, for he is more concerned with the process of creating an imagined past for present political purposes, while Seelye is much more fascinated by the freakish mutation of a symbol in a variety of political and social contexts over time and in a variety of representational registers.

Much of the impact of Seelye's book depends upon the proliferation of absurd variations on the knee-high "forefather's stone" invented by the Plymouth patriots in 1774. In prints, paintings, and verbal evocations it swells to the girth of Gibralter, sprouts portals and a bristle of guns, sports arms and a head to form a stone cross, shrinks to the size of pebble, develops crags, serves as a pedestal for pretty Pilgrim maids, and disappears [End Page 455] entirely in some depictions. Its physical insignificance (so small it was displayed inside Pilgrim Hall for much of the nineteenth century) inspires compensatory monuments and temples. It serves at various junctures as a local icon, an image of regional identity, and a national symbol. It begins as an emblem of patriot fileopiety, becomes a badge of Federalist traditionalism, then a figure of national Reformist Idealism, then Anglo American nativism, then a commercial brand. It is at times a religious Ebenezer, a figuration of government by law, a political touchstone, and a focus for Anglo-American cultural nostalgia. The antic mutability—the often contradictory significance of the stone from representation to representation—conveys with spectacular vividness the contested character of the meaning of American origins throughout the nation's history. Memory's Nation should be read in tension with Michael Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory and as a counter to Kammen's argument about the role of nostalgia in supplying a symbolic harmonics of American community. Nostalgia is only one of a profusion of reactions emanating from the Rock. Seelye's style—bemused, at times wondering—prevents a reader from selecting one response to the rock or one meaning of the rock as the appropriate attitude. His concluding vision of a theatricalized festival rock attended by dress-up Pilgrims is an entirely germane jeu d'esprit about the meaning of history in the age of the reenactor.

Memory's Nation is not a literary history. It incorporates a far broader range of representational concerns than that. Nor is it, properly speaking, an American Studies book, since gender, race, and class are only subsidiary interests. The book is best approached as a ludic exercise in cultural hermeneutics. Amid the considered reflections upon totemic figures in the history—John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, James Russell Lowell—there are many subversive digressions. The mystification and demystification of the Pilgrim fathers inspires much wit. For early Americanists, however, there is one important literary treatment that deserves notice. Plymouth Rock inspired several oratorical performances of signal and lasting influence. Seelye's treatment of speeches of Adams and Webster in particular reveals the sort of discursive potencies that Sandra Gustafson has recently shown to be central to early republican literature in Eloquence Is Power. [End Page 456]



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