Mystic Chords of Memory

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For more than two decades, Michael Kammen, professor of history at Cornell University, has been studying the ways in which Americans view their past. He has written previous volumes on American perceptions of the Revolution, the Constitution, and liberty. He has also written more specifically on the shifting visions of American historians. The last in this series, MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY is the most ambitious of all, attempting a comprehensive explanation of the dialogue Americans have been having with their own history since 1783.

Divided into four parts and numbering over eight hundred pages, MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY tells a fascinating story of collectors of historic relics of all kinds and of organizers of historical societies, museums, and living history exhibits. To his credit, Kammen is concerned not only with the literary expression of the past but also with artifacts and their use to fashion a vision of what once was. Central to his discussion is the thesis that Americans have constantly refashioned the past in response to problems of the present and hopes for the future. Kammen delineates a trend toward more organized collecting of Americana, more governmental involvement in propagating traditions, and greater popular understanding of the past.

Kammen concludes that Americans have always “used” history to depoliticize the past, to heal deep wounds like the Civil War, and to mitigate conflicts in the present. All of this usually entails a great deal of selective remembering, which is bad for authenticity; but overall, Kammen finds the American utilization of history rather salutary, despite its tendency to be both superficial and commercialized.

Although forbiddingly long and encyclopedic, this work is the best we have of the evolving view Americans have had of their past. It is startlingly fresh in its emphasis upon both collecting and museums as indices of popular understanding of the past. Moreover, MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY is simply chock-full of insights and understanding about the uses and abuse of history in American politics and life.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 15, 1991, p. 403.

Boston Globe. LXXXVIII, November 24, 1991, p. 15.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 16, 1992, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, September 1, 1991, p. 1138.

Library Journal. CXVI, September 15, 1991, p. 96.

New York. XXIV, November 18, 1991, p. 97.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 20, 1991, p. 117.

Time. CXXXVIII, December 23, 1991, p. 78.

The Wall Street Journal. January 2, 1992, p. 7.

The Washington Monthly. XXIII, December, 1991, p. 60.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, December 8, 1991, p. 3.

Mystic Chords of Memory

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

No one knows more about the different ways in which Americans have viewed their past than Michael Kammen, Newton C. Farr Professor of History and Culture at Cornell University. Kammen won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972). Since then, Kammen has delved deeply into the American perception of history. First came A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (1978). Next, Kammen wrote A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture and Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture, both published in 1986. Kammen’s next work in this genre of national retrospection was Selvages and Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture (1987), which focused on American historians and their efforts to explicate our experience as a people and nation. Kammen’s latest work, Mystic Chords of Memory, builds upon his previous writings but is much more ambitious than all the others.

Indeed, Kammen has attempted nothing less than a comprehensive examination of the role of the past in the American mind. This is an impossible task, but it is difficult to believe that anyone else could have done nearly as well. Through eight hundred-plus pages, divided into four parts and nineteen chapters, Kammen explains how Americans have always interpreted their history in terms of both present problems or preoccupations and future expectations or aspirations. His survey is broad and deep, dealing not only with myth and memory but also with tradition and history. Kammen deliberately gives little or no attention to those themes he has developed in previous books on the American Revolution, the Constitution, the concept of liberty, and American historiography. His focus is upon the great American middle class, Mr. Everyman and Ms. Everywoman, not the intellectual and political leaders. This perspective is unique and insightful, yet it is also disconcerting, even for someone fairly familiar with Kammen’s other works, because the book is so massively detailed that at times it loses coherence. In fact, Kammen seems much more concerned with demonstrating American attitudes toward the past than with telling the reader why those attitudes arose to begin with. In other words, analysis suffers at the expense of encyclopedic descriptions.

Part I, which covers the period before 1870, is the most analytical section of the book, detailing the problematic nature of the American past and defining concepts such as myth, tradition, memory, and the like. Throughout, Kammen alludes to other nations and the difference and similarities between them and the United States when it comes to understanding the past. As a republic in a world of monarchy, the newly independent United States looked to the future and not to its colonial past. Americans tended to define themselves from the beginning in terms of material and political progress, that is, civilizing the wilderness and expanding the empire of liberty. Progress thus became Americans’ first tradition, and associated with it were the gradual collection of records by various individuals and institutions, the early veneration of the Founding Fathers, and an understanding of the past as “not merely prologue to the present, but prophetic of it.” Ironically, in their efforts to draw moral lessons from the past, American whites were especially attracted to the Native American past, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry and George Catlin’s engravings. But if Indians were incorporated into the developing American tradition, blacks were not, troubling as they were to the antebellum psyche. Moreover, what organized effort there was to salvage the past, or even sentimentalize it, came largely from regional or state self- consciousness.

Perhaps because of his recent book focusing on American historiography, Kammen says little in either part 1 or part 2 about the search for early American documents or the work of gentlemen scholars and academic historians. He does, however, emphasize that in the years after the Civil War, both the North and the South looked to the past for guidance. The war experience itself, Kammen suggests, shattered some of the confidence Americans had in the future and made the past a more legitimate source for understanding the present. In time, Northerners and Southerners would use the past to heal the wounds of Civil War and Reconstruction, especially through the apotheosis of both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, who became, after George Washington, the two greatest American icons. In Part 2, which covers the period 1870-1915, Kammen emphasizes the growing dependence of Americans upon history and the mounting tensions within American traditions between democratic and elitist tendencies, between localism and nationalism, and between industrial progress and agrarian mores. Toward the end of the nineteenth century,...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)