[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ll reflect on those continuing conversations, leading up to a special July 4th weekend post on the state of patriotism in 2021!]
On an excellent audience question that helped me think through a very helpful analogy.
I first read Michael Kammen’s magisterial The Mystic Chords of Memory (1991) for my grad comps, and ever since I’ve made extensive use of his central, paired but contrasting categories of remembrance and commemoration (including in posts for this blog). To quote from how I paraphrase Kammen’s two categories in that hyperlinked blog post: “remembrance, which would describe genuine attempts to remember the past in all its complexity; and commemoration, which would categorize those efforts that are more simplifying and mythologizing, and usually more tied to present concerns than to the past itself.” While of course there’s far more of a nuanced spectrum than that (as Kammen himself analyzes at length in his vital book), I think those two categories continue to do a lot of meaningful scholarly and cultural work, including in our current debates over whether and how to teach American history.
I knew that the category of commemoration had a lot in common with my book’s category of mythic patriotism (about which I wrote in Monday’s post). But thanks to a wonderful audience question after my May 18 virtual book talk at the Boston Athenaeum, I was able to further develop that idea and (more specifically) to come up with a very useful analogy through which to explain it. While I greatly missed the chance to deliver a talk in person at the Athenaeum (still the most beautiful place I’ve ever been able to share my work), I knew that a virtual talk for that community would likewise bring out an impressive, engaged, thoughtful audience, and the attendees didn’t disappoint. They unsurprisingly came up with a great group of questions and responses, and the best was actually asked by a longtime Twitter friend of mine: Beth Folsom, the Program Manager at History Cambridge. Following up on my highlighting of William Apess’ “Eulogy on King Philip” as an example of 19th century critical patriotism, Beth asked whether eulogies more broadly can be defined as central spaces for patriotic expressions.
They certainly can, and given that I didn’t yet talk about such occasions at length in the book, I look forward to thinking through them more fully as I move forward. But Beth’s excellent question also allowed me, both in my immediate response and especially as I’ve continued to think about her frame in the month since, to think about whether mythic patriotism itself could be seen as a eulogizing perspective on American history. Partly that’s because mythic patriotism, like Kammen’s concept of commemoration, features a celebratory perspective on the past which is likewise very central to the tone and work of eulogies. But what Beth’s question and this analogy have really helped me think through is how much mythic patriotism depends on a vision of the past and the nation alike as having passed, as something dead and gone and thus set in stone (rather than constantly being constructed and reconstructed, as categories like active and critical patriotism would insist). And just as a eulogizer would be bothered if their funereal narrative were challenged by those more critical of the deceased, so have our contemporary mythic patriots been so bothered by more critical patriotic takes on the national (not-)dead body.
Last book talk reflection tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this reflection? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?