Between memory and history

Currently reading my former supervisor Jay Winter’s book Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century (Yale UP, 2006). I’ve been asked to review it, which is obviously both a pleasure and a challenge. As very often with Jay – and I don’t think he’d mind me saying this – there are details on which we wouldn’t agree. But, again, as very often, I’m happy to overlook those not just because such disagreements are part of academic camaraderie, but because the eventual outcome is so exciting. For me, Jay’s greatest feature as a supervisor was his inspirational capacity – because of his self-evident enthusiasm for the subject and because he’d make me think about my topic in new ways. Both of these are evident in abundance in this book, which is not just an exploration of the memory and remembrance of war, but in some ways a call to arms. Two quick blasts:

(5-6) ‘History is a profession with rules about evidence, about publication, about peer review. Memory is a process distinct from history, though not isolated from it. All historians leave traces in their work of their own pasts, their own memories. And many laymen and women who engage in acts of remembrance read history and care about it. Sometimes they reshape their own memories to fit with history; at other times, they are certain that they have the story right, and historians who say otherwise – whatever the evidence they produce – are wrong. History and memory overlap, infuse each other, and create vigorous and occasionally fruitful incompatibilities. In this book I take the writing and teaching of history to be an act of collective remembrance, of a different order than other such acts, because of the rules which govern it. History is not simply memory with footnotes; and memory is not simply history without footnotes.’

(203) ‘The challenge is clear: at a time of stagnant or limited academic audiences, public audiences have never been larger. Part of the source of this interest is the memory boom itself… While the profession of history us under financial constraints in the universities, it has a clear avenue to expand. The audience is there, the public service is there. But the means to arrive at the destination challenges cherished assumptions of our profession: namely, that what we do is individual; and that the “authorial voice” is the core of our enterprise. But even if individualism is worshiped as the sine qua non of wisdom, there is still room to share our profession with another kind of colleague, the public historian, who speaks primarily to society at large, and does so as part of a group of scholars and other professionals working together.’

I’ll post up a draft of the full review when I write it.


3 Responses to Between memory and history

  1. eoinpurcell says:

    What an interesting concept. looking forward to reading the review and I might just see if I can pick the book up!

  2. Chris Williams says:

    I’m looking forward to that review as well. Have you seen the CFP for the Swansea conference next year?

  3. Dan says:

    It’s an exemplary CFP, providing extra resources as well as asking for contributions. Well worth a look by anyone who follows this blog.

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