Wednesday’s Book Review: “Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape”

ShackelMyth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape. Edited by Paul A. Shackel. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

This is an interesting collection of essays on various aspects of public memory. The editor, University of Maryland professor Paul A. Shackel, focuses on three major areas in this collection. The first is the obvious idea that when a specific historic site, museum, plaque, presentation, etc., focuses on a specific story that there are other stories related in some way to the site, etc., are lost. This privileging of something over something else ultimately means that certain aspects of the past, and sometimes those are important aspects, are lost to all but the most serious investigators. The cases discussed in this section relate to stories in the South, the women’s movement memorial, the battles for Manassas, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the events at Wounded Knee. The essays focus on the control of memory and how to ensure that the multitude of stories are reflected in some way. Of course, not everyone will be happy with the negotiations and compromises that must take place.

A second section relates to explicit efforts to build a patriotic past. Indeed, most sites operated by the National Park Service explicitly serve this need. Just visit the Independence Hall in Philadelphia as an example. The essays in this section relate to the Antietam National Battlefield, the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery. In the last section the essays emphasize the idea of nostalgia in the presentation of the past. Of course, tell me something I did not know. The essays on carriage roads in Acadia National Park, the George Washington Birthplace, Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Lincoln’s log cabin birthplace are predictable. All evoke a feel-good perspective while masking a deeper and less reverent complexity.

All of these have some value. I especially found the essays on Antietam and Camden Yards the most interesting. I also tended to know the most about those stories. Many of the others have value, but are also at times trite. I kept looking for an overarching theme and great truth. Unfortunately, I did not find one. Accepting that, these are interesting essays.

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