Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Custer's Thick Archive

Michael A. Elliott’s Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) is not a book about archives, but it contains some interesting allusions to the concept of the archive. Elliott, studying how historians, museum curators, private collectors, and the public have considered Custer, his career, and his defeat by Sitting Bull, believes that we can see in the continuing interpretation of Custer the United State’s “continuing ambivalence about its relationship with the indigenous people who have lived within its borders” (p. 2). Elliott provides some interesting observations about how the documents and artifacts concerning Custer have been collected, preserved, displayed, and interpreted, noting how in some cases any analysis of Custer’s interactions with the Native Americans has been avoided.

More interesting to me, however, is the manner in which Elliott sometimes uses the notion of the archives. In considering the different historical evaluations of Custer, Elliott notes, “What interests me is the cumulative effect that these histories generate, the way that traveling through the historical landscape can be like trying to decipher generations of handwriting scribbled over one another on the same page – all devoted to the same subject but each having its own perspective” (p. 10). The end result of consolidating all the historical evidence is a “thick textual archive – hundreds of books, newspaper and magazine articles, newsletters, novels” (p. 14). From time to time, Elliott also describes the difficulty of adding to the Custer archive: “I have seen repeatedly how a notebook or a tape recorder can change a conversation, and I have no doubt that someone responds differently to questions posed over the telephone or e-mail from a distant academic than they might to questions asked by a close acquaintance” (p. 15).

Custerology is an interesting addition to the growing scholarship on war, public memory, and the sense of a societal archive, probably one of the more unique studies of Custer and his legacy. For those curious about how museums, libraries, and private collections fit together, Elliott’s study is worth a look (even if it has a number of distracting copy-editing errors suggesting a lapse in the normally excellent Chicago proofreading).


At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Elliott's quote discussing the different perspectives created by historians is interesting. Archives hold the exact truths of the past. They are firsthand evidence of the actions of people, that reveal exactly what they were doing and thinking at the time. I always found it interesting, therefore, to see the many ways in which the same records with the same information can be interpreted.

With traditionally conservative political history and the way in which history is presented in gradeschool education, it does not surprise me that some interpretations of Custer omit his interactions with Native Americans. James Lowen's Lies My Teacher Told Me is an excellent study of bias and manipulation in history education. I think in these cases, it is the role of archives to preserve and present that public memory, much in the way the Mandela archives has done.


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