American novelist William Faulkner once said, “The past is not dead. In fact, it isn’t even past.” I would like to comment briefly today on the subject of history and memory, given the intriguing relationship between the two that is often neglected. History is a subject that few people enjoy studying in school, and it historical subjects are among those which people are most passionate about–so passionate that people kill over it, dress up in 19th century clothing and sleep on battlefields for it, and devote their lives to a proper understanding over it. How can this be?
Part of the problem is that there is a big difference between history and memory. Though it may be hard to believe, I did not always think of myself as passionate about history. Like most children, I was not particularly interested in textbooks (they are rather boring, after all, even to someone who loves books as much as I do). In the eighth grade, though, I was given a project on personal history, which led me to research thoroughly, uncover all sorts of family stories, genealogical records, recipes, and other documentation of my family’s interesting, if rather obscure, history. As a result of engaging in the sort of archival research done by others, and the recording of the living memory of my family’s deeds, I became a historian, an interest which has been borne out and developed greatly since then.
What happened is that history as a subject ceased to be about boring textbooks about irrelevant matters and became a personal matter, connected to my own memory and personal identity. In finding out about an ancestor of mine who had built a brick house on our family’s farmland and then gone off to war, leaving behind a newborn son to fight rebels, and in other ancestors who had hidden from US army soldiers sent to deport them to Oklahoma so that slave owners could steal their land in the caves of Southwestern Pennsylvania, I not only was studying history, but also realizing that I had a personal tie of hostility against the slave owners whose descendants did not have the honor to admit what they were about, not merely a dry historical disagreement with them. Likewise, many of my friends and acquaintances who support the Lost Cause of the South did so because of a personal tie with ancestors of their own whose cause they defend. I can understand, given the similar motivations that move me to support their opponents.
History is often seen as a trivia competition over the names and dates of kings and presidents, wars and elections, without any real importance or relevance, but when one is presented with the living memory of history, in the passion of people to right the wrongs their ancestors suffered, one realizes that when history leaves the mind and enters the heart as a memory, one’s passions and enthusiasms are stirred far beyond the impersonal data pondered in idle hours in the intellect. When history becomes memory, matters become vastly more serious and contentious, because one realizes that the wars and battles and disputes of history still live on, that we are part of the same stories as those who came before us, and we will pass our struggles and warfare on to those who come after us, if we are so fortunate to have anyone left after we are gone.
I realize, after the fact, that history became memory long before I was aware of it. As a preteen, when my father, younger brother, and I would often take road trips between Florida and Pennsylvania, my responsibilities as the family navigator (given my lifelong fondness of maps) allowed me to schedule all sorts of visits to historical sites, some of them famous (the battlefields of Petersburg and Fredericksburg and Gettysburg from the Civil War), and some of them more obscure (Fort Pulaski guarding the coastline near Savannah, or the lonely battlefield of Moore’s Creek Bridge, one of the early battlefields of the American Revolution, fought between Patriot and Tory neighbors and relatives), which we saw on the way to Fort Fisher and Wilmington.
Later on, and more consciously, as a young adult, I had the same sort of experience in visiting the Middle East, where I sought out the ruins of past civilizations, and mused on what was life for the people of cities like Colosse and Philadelphia and Ephesus in what is now Turkey, or Jerash and Petra in what is now Jordan, or Masada and Meggido in what is now Israel. These cities were not merely names in books, or places marked as ruins on a map, but they were real cities where people lived and died, loved and hated, laughed and cried, thought and felt. Though their cities became deserted or were abandoned after sieges or earthquakes or plagues, their memory lived on, just as it did in the melancholy darkness inside the slave forts of the Gold Coast of Africa near Elmina, Ghana. The memory of the joys and sorrows, rights and wrongs of the past still haunted those places, and the memories of those who have visited such places. Those friends of mine who have visited Nazi concentration camps have told me of the same effect those gloomy places of great evil had on them–the memory remains even after the people are gone. The blood of the innocent still calls out from that haunted ground.
When the past becomes real, whether it is through an understanding of one’s own background, one’s own ancestral struggles, or whether it is through visiting places rich in the memory of the past where one’s faith or one’s heritage is concerned, one understands that history ceases to be about long and boring books, but becomes a living part of the memory. Once that happens, the past ceases to become past at all, but becomes alive and real and present within you, influencing your own positions, your own stands, your own decisions. At that point, one is no longer merely a student of history, but a participant in it.
Those who only see dry words in a textbook can never understand what it means for the past to be real and alive in one’s memory, but most of the world understands in their own way, in the ways in which the grievances of their ancestors become their own struggles, in the ways in which the stories of the brave deeds of one’s fathers inspire the sons to follow the example themselves. So long as the memory lives, the past remains alive to inspire greatness or ruin, to connect us to generations long buried and those yet to come or to divide us against ourselves as we take up arms to renew old quarrels never entirely forgotten or resolved.