In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Memorials, grieving, transcendence

Gettysburg National Military Park Gettysburg, Pennsylvania -- Spring hasn't quite arrived here, so the trees stand bare, the sky is more gray than blue, and a biting wind whips across the fields as we visit significant sites in the Battle of Gettysburg. It's Monday, and Gettysburg National Military Park is quiet and uncrowded. Our guide, the historian Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College, is energetic and emphatic, helping us to locate our positions on maps of the battle and to visualize troop and artillery movements across a landscape of gently rolling knolls and ridges just starting to return to their usual green. Occasionally we stop to read from the correspondence of Civil War soldiers and their families, reconstructing the stories of individual men who experienced the gruesome battle. We are suddenly brought down from the god's-eye perspective of history into smoke, dust, and blood.

The battlefield is peppered with memorials commemorating soldiers, divisions of infantry, and important events. Statues stand in heroic poses -- charging, standing ready, or gazing at the terrain -- already contributing to a narrative of glory and redemption. The serenity of the park belies the political wrangling that determines what is to be memorialized, how, and where. There is much talk of the "presentation" of history, the official master narrative versus the smaller and quieter individual narratives of the war.

In the afternoon conversation with Peter and his colleague Kent Gramm, a question arises: Is redemption, the quest for transcendence, a typically American impulse that underlies the memorialization of catastrophe? This leads to a discussion of how history is often beautified to facilitate understanding and transcendence. History's eventual form is mythology, and myths are notoriously difficult to revise once they have acquired an authoritative, definitive patina.

There is a need to articulate pain, to speak it, to tell its story, as a way of making sense of inchoate tragedy. At a wake for a loved one, the bereaved are compelled to tell the story of the death to visitor after visitor in a key part of the grieving process. Then the grieving ends, becomes memory, and the story starts its slow hardening into myth. Peter's project seems to be to slow down the process to speckle, streak, and texture the narrative before it sets. He understands that it might already be too late, and that his lone voice might be just that -- an echo across a quiet field whose horrors have already been laid to reluctant rest.

--Vicente Garcia Groyon

Gettysburg National Military Park


  1. "In the afternoon conversation with Peter and his colleague Kent Gramm, a question arises: Is redemption, the quest for transcendence, a typically American impulse that underlies the memorialization of catastrophe?"

    While the quest for redemption or transcendence may not be a US impulse exclusively (notice the religious overtones), the search for a way to turn a disaster into opportunity (for business, new morality, etc.) and _rebuilding_ ("We will rebuild this city," say the politicians) IS uniquely US American. Their rhetoric of "starting again" is part of the national mythology.

    If you ask US minorities about how they deal with tragedy, disaster, or insurmountable obstacles, they will have different coping strategies. They also memorialize in different ways. For example, the African American memory of the Civil War is the celebration of "Juneteenth," the days in June 1865 when Union troops entered Texas and liberated the slaves there. Likewise, African Americans remember Lincoln not as the president who preserved the union of the states, but as the man who liberated the slaves.

  2. I feel that the religious overtones come from the Protestant/Christian background of America, but yes, I agree that the belief in the certainty of redemption might be typical of the American mindset, as it might be of many first-world societies -- the belief that things do and will get fixed, get better and go in one's favor. In developing countries, the attitude is likely to be a kind of resignation to how things have turned out, and a matter-of-fact coping or adjusting to new circumstances.

    The different ways of remembering might not be limited to US minorities either. The Civil War is retold differently depending what part of white America one is in, as well, which can be a source of amusement in some cases, and cause for anger in others.