David Blight explores historic memories

Considered by some to be a pioneer in the relatively new field of memory studies, Blight was recently awarded the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for his latest work, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, 1863-1915,” which examines how the memories of the Civil War affected the nation in the 50 years following it.

“When nations experience massive, transforming events, there is always a struggle in the aftermath and, often, for a very long time, over just what those events meant. That struggle is the struggle to forge a collective memory, a social memory,” said Blight. “What you’re trying to do when you study memory as a history is you’re trying to ultimately write the history of the process by which a society debates the struggle of memory, and you’re writing the history of the process by which groups of people, or even whole nations, develop a historical memory or a conflicted memory.”

The present, as a sum of past events, is obviously affected by the histories that develop from the collective memories of a previous era. “We’ve recently had lots of controversy over Confederate traditions and symbols, and there’s still a broad public debate about just what the meaning of the Civil War should be or was or is,” he said. “The problem of remembering the Civil War, which has everything to do with race relations at the turn of the 20th century, also has a great deal to do with why the Civil War and its consequences remain an unresolved set of ideas and problems in our culture today.”

Memory studies, a field familiar to anthropologists, is fairly new to historians. “It is an attempt to bring some distinctions to the question of what the difference is between what we might call history-the history that gets into textbooks-versus this phenomenon of how whole societies develop understandings of the past out of which they’ve drawn identities,” said Blight.

His interest in the field of national memory grew out of the conclusion to “Frederick Douglass’ Civil War,” one of his earlier works. “The last chapter was about the way Douglass struggled to preserve a kind of abolitionist or emancipationist memory of the Civil War,” he said. “From there I moved onto a much broader study of historical memory of the entire Civil War and the emancipation in the North and the South.”

For part of his research, Blight took the 1996-97 academic year off with a fellowship from the Warren Center at Harvard University, a research institute that conducts the history department at Harvard, to study memoir material, newspapers, magazines and letters. He described the research as anything but clear. “You’re trying to understand what anthropologists would call ‘cultural mythology’: stories that develop to enhance their own positions, to fight for control over the past, struggle over who gets to write the story to control the past, who gets to convey a dominant memory out in the nominal society,” said Blight. “This is an elusive set of problems that is not always easy to pin down.”

However, with the help of several Amherst students, who he acknowledges in his work, Blight overcame this difficulty. “Some Amherst students became deeply invested in this study and, even more importantly, at least five or six Amherst students were very important research assistants to me,” said Blight. “A few of them did some major research for me, without which I could never have finished the book.”

A senior thesis written by Vanessa Harris ’99 familiarized Blight with a Southern female writer, Mary Johnston. Harris’ extensive use of Johnston in her thesis made a lasting impression on Blight. “It was rich and unique that I could learn from [my students], and they from me,” he said. “I use significant quotations from Mary Johnston in the prologue of my book, and I use her again a couple times later. Without Vanessa’s thesis, I just wouldn’t have known. I should have, but I didn’t.”

For now, Blight has found his main interest. He is considering writing another book about the memory and the history of slavery, a subject that is discussed rather extensively in his most recent book. “What I want to eventually do is come up with the range of ways we’ve told the story of slavery from one extreme, which is essentially a horror narrative, to the other extreme, which was powerful in pop culture in the 20th century: that all slaves were content, loyal and that slavery was an ordered society between masters and slaves,” Blight said.