What is essential to the process of memory? How are we as humans shaped not only by popular media, but also by personal experience? As I have had the pleasure of enjoying Cultural Memory II this semester (and the anticipation of taking Cult. Memory I next semester) I can say without hesitation that my perception of memory as part of the human experience has markedly shifted since the Fall. I speak, of course, as a pre-law student who loves to analyze, discuss and digest the complexities of facts, which I viewed as the anatomy of history itself. But is history made up of facts? Is it founded on that which is inherently concrete? I would posit that it is not. History is comprised, defined and remembered as a concert of individual human experiences and understanding. Please don’t misunderstand me by thinking that the past is entirely a figment of human emotion, far from it. What I am saying is that the way that we form memories of events differs widely and affects what our society chooses to remember and how they choose to remember it. Let me give you a few examples: On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. by a disgruntled Southerner John Wilkes Booth. In the wake of the assassination, unity and coordinated efforts to capture Booth swept across the finally unified and mourning nation. The Richmond Dispatch, then one of the leading newspapers in the former capital of the Confederacy, headlined the title “RICHMOND WEEPS FOR LINCOLN WITH REST OF THE UNION”. Hatred for the president who had emancipated the slaves and mended a torn nation melted in the wake of his untimely death and why? Because of memory. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t a reversion to Southern Pride, but the memory of Lincoln shifted significantly to the fallen hero. Imagine the volumes of literature, poetry and song published regarding the death of Lincoln. Do most people know anything about his policy as president other than the positives? What about his censorship of the Supreme Court? American memory tends to overlook the potential faults of one it’s most famous and revered citizens.
This is cultural memory. It’s the revelation and examination of the forgotten and the study of why it was forgotten in the first place. It is an intensely personal experience, but without it, we fall into the trap of forgetting ourselves and who we are as citizens of this great nation. I leave you with one of the most famous poems regarding the Lincoln assassination by a great American poet, Walt Whitman. Look into it and see if you can feel the same fervor that gripped the nation in the months following the president’s death. Taste and savor the memory.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
- But O heart! heart! heart!
- O the bleeding drops of red,
- Where on the deck my Captain lies,
- Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
- Here Captain! dear father!
- This arm beneath your head;
- It is some dream that on the deck,
- You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
- Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
- But I, with mournful tread,
- Walk the deck my Captain lies,
- Fallen cold and dead.