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.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Back In Gettysburg: ‘They’ and Civil War Memory

It is now awhile since we passed through Gettysburg, an unbelievably neat and tidy giant diorama, with straight lines, wide avenues in parts, cute awnings and clean streets that disturbed my urban chaotic psyche. I invariably looked for some of the crazy energy, that ‘institutional’ madness of the ‘Afro-urban’ modern space, ‘cosmo-natives’ and their ‘life-energy’ and their dismissal of architecture, and the material. Gettysburg refused to indulge me. Between older spruced up buildings that had metal identity plates that said ‘Civil War History’, stood T-shirt and Civil War paraphernalia shops and possibly the biggest commercial game in town, ghost-tour offices. 
Next to this Disney-like apparition lay the memorial Gettysburg battlefield, green sweeping lawns sprinkled with all sorts, shapes and sizes of monuments, uneven dragon’s teeth. Giant grand figures on concrete horses, small and large headstones with memorabilia dotted this grand static vista open to a multitude of possible interpretations and mental re-enactments of America’s ‘Great War’, narratively, and in places, politically perpetually contested since it took place. American memory seems addicted to the epic form, and I felt its pull. Standing before the sweeping physicality of the actual battle-field, I expected hordes of old soldiers to appear before my eyes, horses to start galloping and the noise, heat and dust that re-enacters try and summon every year, that ghosts spotters claim to see every night, to come to life. Later that evening, I entered a tavern with waitresses dressed like 19th Century maids, dead strips of ermine and mink decorated the walls. I wanted the ‘porridge’ on the menu but one of my fellow writers pointed out the fine print – the porridge was really soup, gruel. There was little heat, noise and dust in present-day Gettysburg as some wit described the whole American Civil War - but the present there tries to pull all the stops to re-live whatever can be transacted. At least for the 1 million visitors that go there every year. 

In a place where a ‘nasty, untidy, brutal’ war (in the words of our guide) was fought, everything seemed anaesthesticised. Gettysburg College was also a patchwork of green lawns, brick buildings with high ceilings, and pretty co-eds. Spring though delayed came through in the afternoons. All this did not lighten the shadow of weighty history. Our writer's attended a senior creative non-fiction workshop and encountered the largest possibly indifferent social group in Gettysburg to its grand ‘history’ - college students from elsewhere in America. One female student said the general attitude on campus to the ‘Civil War’ scene in town was that it was ‘cheesy’. As we discussed the challenges of ‘point of view’ in creative non-fiction and fiction, a male student observed that there was such a surfeit of knowledge of the Civil War in present-day Gettysburg that it was both ‘nutty’ and intimidating. And it's whole body of knowledge was held by a fearful and anonymous entity that the student described as ‘they’. ‘They’, he said, knew where every single body from the war is buried. So, all the students came to Gettysburg, imbibed a lot of Civil War information, and went back home to educate family and friends. These comments were mere footnotes to the session, the Civil War divided us; our writer’s group had travelled because of it and the students seemed shut out by its proximity. Even for writing it seemed faraway and forbidding to them. 

When I explained a piece that I had sent before-hand to the students, I later realized that the session was particularly fruitful, an excellent conversational exercise in cross-purposes, a micro-Gettysburg redux. I told the students, somewhat facetiously, that I came from a place where the difference between fiction and non-fiction was that I could be sued for the latter. That, the ‘truths’ of fiction and ‘facts’ of non-fiction could be used inter-changeably to say what I needed to say about where I come from. I realize now that this might have been of little significance to those students. The historical weight of the American Civil War, a huge institution in such proximity, could satiate natural curiosity to an endpoint, blur against one’s own ‘individual’ narrative concerns in non-fiction. And that Gettysburg’s T-shirt shops, ghost tours might close one to the absurd or comic art. Somebody in our group fortuitously reminded us at the end of the Gettysburg visit that being in one place for a day can produce a novel, being there for a week, a short story, and that it becomes impossible to write anything about a place after one has been there for a year. But what happens if the memory of a place or event has always been with you one way or the other through in ongoing never-ending ways, has become many things to many men for many ages. What can one write about it and how does this work with all the others struggling to do the same. That seems the struggle with the memory of the American Civil War. 

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