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.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Memoir and Archives

Here is another collection of essays on writing memoirs, and it is a good one. Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May, eds., Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life (St. Paul, MN: Borealis Books, 2008) sets out to play with the differences between historical writing and memoir and the relationship between memory and memoir. Right at the outset of the book, acknowledging that there seems to be a “wide divide” between memoir and history, the editors argue that the “record always retains blank spaces – whether the record emerges from archival sources or from personal memory” (p. 3). This comment sets the tone for the various commentators in this volume.

Many of the authors, drawing on their experiences as both historians and memoirists, make interesting observations that concern the archival record. June Cross writes, “Personal memories spring from the imagined and real connection among places, people, and things. This is where history and memoir diverge. Textbook history is arrived at by consensus, dulled at the edges. It is drawn from careful inspection of documents and limited by the records one can find. The grand sweep of history feels linear, even though it is messy and fraught with competing ideas and conflicting circles of influence. But for the memoirist, history and memory conflate to form a story we want to tell about ourselves, and that narrative arc changes as we grow older, as the world turns” (p. 63). Elaine Tyler May, in her own essay in the volume, contends, “History and memoir are both interpretive arts. Both genres se carefully selected fragments of the past – memories, documents, events – to tell a story” (p. 85). May also considers the limitations of archival sources. Reflecting on her pouring through birth, death, property, and business records, she writes, “But these records had no stories, no real people, no emotion. Just numbers and bits of data. I imagined myself making charts with categories and checking off little boxes for hours on end. I would die of boredom before I could write one word of history – and what could I write without stories?” (p. 88).