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.