UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Faculty > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 201E > articles

Rick Perlstein:
"Breakthrough Books on Collective Memory" (1996)

in: Lingua Franca (March/April 1996)
retrieved from webarchive.org

page formatted and archived by Harold Marcuse
(professor of German history at UC Santa Barbara)
Harold Marcuse homepage

created December 23, 2006, updated 12/26/06

Michael Schudson:
Judith Miller
James Young:
Andreas Huyssen (1995)
Richard C. Smith:
Maurice Halbwachs
Iwona Irwin-Zarecka:
Alain Finkielkraut
Anthony Kaes:
Jay Winter
Edward Linenthal:
Laurence Langer
Avner Ben-Amos:
John Gillis (ed.)
Sherna Berger Gluck:
Alessandro Portelli
Jonathan Boyarin:
Yael Zerubavel

Scholars of collective memory examine the ways in which social groups commemorate and transmit their pasts. We asked nine of them to tell us about their favorite recent books in the field. Here are their responses.

  • Michael Schudson, professor of communications and sociology at UC-San Diego and author of Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past (Basic, 1992).
    • "There are two kinds of studies of collective memory-those that examine the Holocaust, and all the others. Even people whose own work lies in that second group find Holocaust studies inescapably important, capable of illuminating every corner of the general topic with intellectual clarity and urgency. I particularly admire Judith Miller's One, by One, by One (Simon & Schuster, 1990). Miller, a writer at the New York Times, examines how Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States have remembered and forgotten, honored and dishonored, contemplated and exploited the memory of the Holocaust. Blessed with a lucid and understated prose style, Miller drives straight to the heart of the politics of memory and the powerful impulses that lead individuals, organizations, and nations to ignore, deny, rewrite, or reframe disturbing truths."
  • James Young, professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials & Meaning in Europe, Israel, & America (Yale, 1993) and Writing & Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative & the Consequences of Interpretation (Indiana, 1988). [back to top]
    • "Though my shelves sag beneath the weight of excellent new books on what I have come to think of as 'collected memory,' one title that especially stands out is Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, by Andreas Huyssen (Routledge, 1995). It offers lucid reevaluations of how public memory has been forged in postmodern European culture by examining the way writers (Alexander Kluge and Ernst Junger), artists (Anselm Kiefer), and movements (Fluxus) negotiate history and memory in their works. It is also worth noting that these issues are worked through beautifully in the journal History and Memory, founded by Saul Friedlander in 1989 and published at Tel Aviv University."
  • Richard Candida Smith, professor of history at the University of Michigan, author of Utopia & Dissent: Art, Poetry, & Politics in California (California, 1995), and president-elect of the Oral History Association. [back to top]
    • Candida Smith recommends a recent collection of work by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, edited by Lewis Coser (Chicago, 1992). "Active during the first half of this century, Halbwachs died during World War II in a Nazi internment camp. He insisted that all memories, even those of intimate personal life, are social narratives which draw upon years of discussion around the kitchen table, at the workplace, in church, or wherever people congregate. Many stories we could tell are filtered out as inappropriate. As a result, the tales people agree to tell each other convey a shared evaluation of the community's fate-and of the placement of each individual in its hierarchy. These stories are sealed into each person by laughter, tears, and the other strong emotional experiences that occur when one is either telling a story or listening."
  • Iwona Irwin-Zarecka, professor of sociology and communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, and author of Neutralizing Memory: The Jew in Contemporary Poland (Transaction, 1989) and Frames of Remembrance: Social & Cultural Dynamics of Collective Memory (Transaction, 1994). [back to top]
    • Irwin-Zarecka prizes the international character of work in collective memory, and Holocaust memory specifically-but also finds it to be a mixed blessing. "It is unfortunate," she says, "that so much of the really good work is only available in French. That makes it harder for students to canvass the full depth of reflection on the vicissitudes of Holocaust memory." She recommends the translation of French essayist Alain Finkielkraut's Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial & Crimes against Humanity (Columbia, 1992): "There is no more powerful account of how effectively we can silence a morally troubling history in the very process of publicly talking about it."
  • Anthony Kaes, professor of German and film at Berkeley, coeditor of the Weimar Republic Source Book (California, 1994), and author of Shell Shock: Film, Trauma, and Weimar Germany (Princeton, forthcoming). [back to top]
    • "Jay Winter's Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge, 1995) vividly describes the ways in which communities responded to the unprecedented trauma of the First World War, thus rewriting Paul Fussell's classic of twenty years ago, Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975). Analyzing commemoration and collective solace as cultural practices with far-reaching social and political implications, Winter's book sheds new light not only on the troubled period between the wars but also on the cultural energy that goes into collective memory."
  • Edward Linenthal, professor of religion at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, author of Sacred Ground: Americans & Their Battlefields (Illinois, 1991), and co-editor of History Wars: The Enola Gay & Other Battles for the American Past (Holt, 1996). [back to top]
    • Linenthal admires Lawrence Langer's Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (Yale, 1991) for the way it "engages the 'deep' memories of Holocaust survivors that live alongside the 'ordinary' memories of pre- and post-Holocaust time." Langer, he notes, "has no patience for the rhetoric of insulation-which, for example, celebrates the 'triumph of the spirit' emerging from the Holocaust. This rhetoric prohibits profound engagement with the reality of these testimonies." Linenthal also praises James Young's Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials & Meaning in Europe, Israel, & America (Yale, 1993) for its international focus. "As Young writes, memory of the Holocaust is 'as plural as the hundreds of diverse buildings and designs by which every nation and people house remembrance.'"
  • Avner Ben-Amos, professor of the history of education at Tel Aviv University and author of Molding the National Memory: State Funerals in Modern France (Oxford, forthcoming). [back to top]
    • Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity edited by John R. Gillis (Princeton, 1994). Ben-Amos recommends this volume for its theoretical articles by John Gillis, Richard Handler, and David Lowenthal, as well as its case studies, which, he notes "include articles by some of our finest historians: David Cressy on national memory in early modern England; John Bodnar on public memory in the American city; Yael Zerubavel on invented tradition in Israel; Daniel Sherman on war monuments in France; and Claudia Koonz on concentration camps in Germany. In spite of the diversity of the topics and the attitudes, the volume succeeds in keeping its coherence, thanks to the similarity of the issues that are raised."
  • Sherna Berger Gluck, director of the oral history program at California State University, Long Beach, and professor of women's studies; coeditor of Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (Routledge, 1991). [back to top]
    • "No single book employing oral history methodology has had as great an impact on my thinking about collective memory as Alessandro Portelli's Death of Luigi Trastulli & Other Stories: Form & Meaning in Oral History (SUNY, 1990). In this elegant, lyrical, and challenging collection of essays, Portelli moves us to a more nuanced understanding of the social construction of meaning. Portelli takes as his starting point the 1949 death of a young factory worker in central Italy. He then goes on to examine the various 'creative errors' contained in the competing accounts of the event. The book is simultaneously about stories, about the performative aspect of oral history, about social relationships in field work-and above all about the way that collective memory shapes the meaning of community."
  • Jonathan Boyarin, author of Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (Minnesota, 1992) and Polish Jews in Paris: The Ethnography of Memory (Indiana, 1991). He is also the editor of Remapping Memory: Space, Time, & the Politics of Memory (Minnesota, 1994). [back to top]
    • "I remember the response of a friend, a Palestinian anthropologist, when I told him about Benedict Anderson's idea of the nation as an imagined community. He said, 'If things keep going this way and we lose the rest of our land, someone's going to have to imagine a homeland for us!' The same scholar was a key researcher on a project that will help to commemorate the majority of Palestine that has already been lost: All That Remains: Palestinian Villages Occupied & Depopulated by Israel in 1948, edited by Walid Khalidi (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992). That encyclopedia should be read in conjunction with Yael Zerubavel's authoritative new study, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory & the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago, 1995). Together they give some rough notion of the imaginative space that needs to be traversed to achieve a measure of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation."

--Rick Perlstein [back to top]

page created by Harold Marcuse December 23, 2006; last update: see page header
back to top; Harold Marcuse homepage