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).