At Covey’s Farm: History in the Mind’s Eye
When I was a little girl, all my daydreams were of time travel. Not to the future—the future bored me—but always to the past. Sometimes I dreamed I was a pioneer, traveling west in a covered wagon; sometimes I was a stowaway on a ship, catching a ride with Captain Cook. Sometimes, after a round with The Sound of Music, I dreamed that I was a girl-spy in the Resistance. This particular fantasy became so vivid that I started to dream in sleepy earnest of roving Nazis who hunted me on streetcars and staircases. When my mother found out about these nightmares, she banished The Sound of Music from our house for six or seven months. “You’ve been watching that movie too much,” she told me.
The girl-spy scenario was no great loss, for it was only a bauble in my treasure chest of daydreams. The real gold lay elsewhere, in a very particular historical place and time: Boston, simmering with sedition on the eve of the American Revolution. I dreamed that scenario six ways from Sunday. Every place an eight-year-old girl could conceivably find herself in Revolutionary-era Boston, I went, and then to a lot of other places besides. I was a courier for the Sons of Liberty; I was a farm girl in Concord; I was a girl who pretended to be a boy so she could enlist in the Continental Army. I was the brave daughter or plucky apprentice of just about every Founding Father from New England. (I was also, by necessity, extremely progressive about 18th-century gender roles.)
My daydreams were intricately plotted and vividly detailed, and they were a joy to me. Not so much because I reveled in escape from my daily life, but because I hungered to experience another kind of life altogether. For as long as I could remember, I had been captivated by stories of the Revolutionary War. Whence this interest arose, I don’t know; perhaps someone told me a rollicking good version of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere when I was five or six, and I took it too deeply to heart. As I grew a little older, I read voraciously about the era, collecting enough material to make myself a first-class nuisance in any conversation. But I was enchanted by this drama of patriotism and intrigue. How strange a time it was, and how unutterably exciting! I yearned to play a part.
For a while, I believed I really could. I knew my daydreams for what they were, pure fantasy. But for an eight-year-old girl, the world is still a somewhat magical place, and the laws governing it are not entirely clear. Was time travel possible? Well, no; but neither did it seem possible that I should possess such a powerful desire to travel back in time, without the universe would consent to satisfy me. Although I had no clear expectations for how things would play out, still I think I was waiting for something extraordinary to happen to me.
To my profound disappointment, nothing extraordinary did happen. What happened instead was this: one morning during my fourth grade year, as I was sitting at the kitchen table with my breakfast bowl of oatmeal, I lost my faith. I was probably daydreaming about being Abigail Adams’s kitchen maid (oatmeal tending to inspire such fantasies), when all of a sudden I was struck with a fit of pique. How frustrating it was, to daydream so diligently and yet have nothing come of it! I wanted so much to go in body where I went in my mind’s eye. I must have been in a masochistic mood, because I decided to bait myself. “Charlotte,” I thought, “you must realize now that you will never be able to go back in time. It will never happen, because it is not possible.”
That was it. Though I had meant only to spar with my own frustration, I somehow heard that dreadful speech and knew it was true. I was never going to be able to go back in time. It was not possible. I remember dropping my spoon into the bowl of rapidly-cooling oatmeal (so long, Abigail Adams) and staring at the tablecloth, trying not to cry. It seems silly to say now, but in that moment I felt I had sustained an awful loss.
Much has changed since that fateful breakfast—the future now scares me instead of boring me—but my appetite for some kind of immediate knowledge of the past has not abated. As a child, I paired this appetite with a craving for personal adventure. I wanted not only to know about history, but to enact it myself. There is something fundamentally immature about this urge; as if history were a great big amusement park, and I a happy-go-lucky tourist working my way through all the rides. “The Civil War—what a roller coaster that was! Thank God I got off before anyone was killed.” Eventually I graduated from this perspective, but never from my initial fascination. Though I have long since stopped imagining myself as an historical actor, I still want to know what it was like then, to see history in rich, sensory detail, as lucidly as I perceive my own present.
In me this desire is perhaps extreme, but we all harbor something like it. Someone mentions the Great Depression, and our minds call up a catalogue of images: breadlines, shantytowns, migrant families. Someone mentions the Civil Rights Movement, and we see Martin leading a march or Malcolm at a lectern. Different people may conjure different images, but we all imagine something. Let us call this animation of history by image or story historical memory.
What exactly is historical memory? The term has many different meanings, but it generally refers to a group’s common understanding of a shared past. Historians usually use the more precise “collective memory,” a phrase coined by philosopher, sociologist, and Frenchman Maurice Halbwachs. Halbwachs distinguished between two faculties of memory, individual and collective. “Suppose,” wrote he, “that remembrances are organized in two ways, either grouped about a definite individual who considers them from his own viewpoint or distributed within a group for which each is a partial image.” The former is individual memory, which manages the experiences of one’s personal life. The latter is collective memory, a unitary collection of facts, ideas, stories, and images related to a group’s history and maintained in fragments by individuals within the group. Each person contributes his shard of memory to the larger picture.
So runs the classical conception of historical memory. But how does an individual experience this amalgamation of memories? Can a single person view the group’s larger picture? Or, to put the question a different way: how can one person recall with the quality of memory, not knowledge, something that she herself never experienced?
According to Halbwachs, a sort of memory-by-proxy is possible, but only through laborious appropriation. To recall the past in any coherent way, he writes,
I must rely entirely upon the memory of others, a memory that comes, not as corroborator or completer of my own, but as the very source of what I wish to repeat [...] I carry a baggage load of historical remembrances that I can increase through conversation and reading. But it remains a borrowed memory, not my own.Halbwachs’s “baggage load” of memory contains only the historical events that he has actually lived through. In his schema, I might borrow a memory of Barack Obama’s election, but I could not borrow one of Warren Harding’s (and really, who would want to?). Still, the notion of borrowed memory seems full of possibility. Groups remember what they have reason to care for; in Halbwachs’s words, what has “interested and transformed” them. But what of transformations begun long ago, but still interesting to the present? For example, though I did not live through the Great Depression, that era has deeply influenced the conditions of my life. May I not borrow “through conversation and reading” a memory of those times, much as I borrow memories of things that have happened in my own time, but which I have not witnessed?
If I may not, someone will have to confiscate my Studs Terkel anthology. Hard Times, a collection of Terkel’s oral histories about the Great Depression, is easy pickings for an acquisitive memory. Terkel’s interviews are so direct, so full of strange and stunning detail, that they populate my thoughts as vividly as my own recollections do. Here is an excerpt from an interview with farmer Harry Terrel, recounting an attack on an Iowa judge who was involved with foreclosures on farm mortgages during a period of unrest:
It all happened in Le Mars. They took the judge out of his court and took him to the fairgrounds and they had a rope around his neck, and they had the rope over the limb of the tree. They were gonna string him up in the old horse thief fashion. But somebody had sense enough to stop the thing before it got too far.There is much that is murky about this memory. Who was the judge? How did the mob collect him? And why didn’t they go through with the hanging? Harry Terrel doesn’t tell us. But with an economy of language he conjures a scene that is devastatingly immediate. “They had a rope around his neck, and they had the rope over the limb of the tree”: that image is as clear as day, and imminently disturbing.
With a good narrator like Harry Terrel, it is easy to see how we might borrow memories of things we never saw. But where such a voice is absent, how can we supply memory to history? I have had some good luck with this question recently, mulling over a bit of history in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live. Cambridge is a proud keeper of its history, and the jewel in its crown is George Washington. Washington spent only nine months in the city, but he has spawned an astonishing proliferation of plaques and monuments. A hotel near the Cambridge Common, part of the Sheraton chain, actually styles itself the Sheraton Commander in his honor. An enormous, red, neon sign reading “The Commander” sits atop its roof, and its entrance is graced by a statue of Washington, who is identified simply as “The Commander.” In the lobby there is a diorama of Washington reviewing his troops.
The troops in question are, of course, the Continental Army, part of which was garrisoned at Cambridge in 1775 and 1776 while the army laid siege to British troops in Boston. The siege began in the aftermath of the battles at Lexington and Concord and ended in the spring of 1776, when the American troops installed heavy artillery on the hills overlooking Boston and put the British troops to flight (to Canada, wouldn’t you know). Boston and Cambridge still celebrate the anniversary of the British departure as a public holiday.
Washington oversaw the siege beginning in July 1775, when he arrived in Cambridge under orders from the revolutionary coalition to take charge of its army. The next nine months were a terrible trial. The army, at its best a rather disorganized collection of local and state militias, began to disintegrate. Soldiers slipped home to become farmers again, and they took their weapons with them. Money and ammunition, always in short supply, ran so low that Washington feared he would not be able to resist if the British moved on his camp. Significant offensive action could not be thought of with so few men and so little shot; of Henry Knox, who had been dispatched in the late fall to retrieve artillery from Fort Ticonderoga, there was no word. “If I shall be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties which might be enumerated,” Washington wrote that winter, “I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies.”
During these months, Washington had his headquarters in a large house outside Harvard Square, overlooking the Charles River. The troops stationed in Cambridge had set up their camps on the Cambridge Common and in Harvard Yard. I walk past these places almost every day (the lilacs at Washington’s headquarters are in splendid bloom this week), and I have often tried to picture how they must have looked in that first winter of the war. I have read no very vivid accounts of the period, certainly nothing with Harry Terrel’s punch. But in the absence of any good memories to borrow, I have begun to contemplate the land itself. I am trying to imagine it without trees. Though Cambridge is now a verdant city, almost all of its trees date from after the siege. At that time, New England had been teetering on the edge of widespread fuel shortages for decades, and the sudden influx of soldiers into Cambridge that winter precipitated a crisis. American troops cut down most public and many private woodlots for fuel and even began to strip orchards, houses, and fences to burn. Still there was not enough wood. Washington was in a terrible bind. He worried that if the army were not adequately supplied, it would disperse at the first bad weather; yet he could not permit the troops to collect their fuel from private property. “From fences to forest trees, and from forest trees to fruit trees, is a natural advance to houses, which must next follow,” he fretted. Even more alarming was the potential for violence among the troops as they jockeyed for supplies. “I little thought we had scarce four hours [of fuel yesterday],” he wrote the Continental Congress in November 1775, “and that different Regiments were upon the point of cutting each others’ throats for a few standing locusts near their encampment to dress their victuals with.”1
The eighteenth century is still foreign enough that I cannot quite picture the scene Washington described. Harry Terrel’s mob of farmers was familiar-looking to me, all things considered, but I have no visual vocabulary for the clothes or tools of Washington’s soldiers. I can, however, begin to imagine how barren and apocalyptic a New England landscape without trees must have appeared. Now when I cross the Common, I sometimes squint and try to call to mind a memory of that grim view.
Illustration by Tom Tian
Our moral stupidity
At the last, what are memories of history good for? Like all exercises of imagination, they can run dangerously amok. Individual memory, at least, is founded in lived experience; but the production of historical memory, which does not have even this weak check, can turn out very badly. General George S. Patton, an Allied commander in World War II, cherished historical memories that verged on delusions. He did not borrow memories so much as he stole them. So vivid was Patton’s imagination and so suggestible were his metaphysics, he came to believe that he himself had fought in some of the great military campaigns of history, from Rome’s conquest of Carthage to Napoleon’s sweep through Europe. “I wonder if I could have been here before,” he wrote his mother from France in 1917. “As I drive up the Roman road the Theater seems familiar—perhaps I headed a legion up that same white road and wiped the dust from eyes while thanking Jupiter for the promised bath.” Patton and my eight-year-old self would have had a lot to talk about, for his memories of life as a Roman centurion are rather like my own daydreams of Revolutionary soldiery. But instead of growing out of these daydreams, Patton burrowed more deeply into them, and acquired a case of full-fledged megalomania along the way.
So Patton was a little crazy, but at least it wasn’t catching. Worse by far are history’s sentimentalizers, those people who elide unpleasant passages of history to accommodate their own sepia-toned fantasies. This abuse is cousin to Patton’s: both spring from an unhealthy attachment to the past. But whereas Patton’s delusions concerned no one but himself (perhaps his mother was a bit concerned, too), the sentimentalizers of historical memory often clump together in unsightly groups.
For an example of this mischief, look to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause is an alarmingly popular movement in historical memory that distorts the history of the American Civil War in service of nostalgia for the antebellum South. In an effort to redeem and celebrate the Confederacy, the movement promulgates an account of the conflict that is sometimes sophistical and often flatly false. The Lost Cause narrative is most inaccurate—and most dangerous—in its sanitization of the South as a slave society, and in its cognitively-dissonant denial of the role that slavery and racism played in Southern life and the Southern cause. This ideology is rooted in a pernicious kind of memory, one that suffers from a fatal attraction to a flawed past. In order to make history habitable for fantasy, Lost Causers simply ignore the historical evidence.2
From the examples above we may deduce two rules for the practice of historical memory. First, historical memory is not a substitute for historical knowledge. The latter consists of a familiarity with historical facts and with rigorous, fact-based arguments about historical phenomena. Though historical knowledge is always shaped by the political and social context in which it is created, it still strives for something like objectivity. Historical memory, as I have been writing of it—that is, as an illustration of the historical past that we view and experience as memories—is naturally subjective. We look to historical knowledge to find out what happened, how, and why; we look to historical memory to discover something more ephemeral, what it was like. If we are to gain anything from either the knowledge or memory of history, we should not confound them, or make one serve the fancies of the other.
Second, historical memory is not a field for egoism. We should not broach it with a lust for personal adventure, as Patton did, or use it to justify elements of our identities, as Lost Causers do. It should have no trace of self-regard. As a child, I practiced historical memory in precisely the wrong way. I wanted to bring the unfamiliar past within the realm of my own experience, to take the gigantic fabric of other people’s lives and cut it down into a coat that I could put on when I felt like it. I wanted history to entertain me and to accommodate me. I wanted to make it familiar for my own enjoyment.
But the past is unrelentingly unfamiliar. Other people’s lives are unfamiliar. We may know tolerably well the what, how, and why of another life, but we never know what it is like to be anyone but ourselves. And if it is impossible to exceed the limits of our own experience, it is often difficult even to remember that something exists beyond those limits. “We are all of us born in moral stupidity,” wrote the novelist George Eliot, “taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.” To emerge from this stupidity, to become oriented toward and interested in the world as something other than nourishment for ourselves, is a central task of maturity.
The exercise of historical memory is one route by which we can hope to emerge. Historical memory consists in the effort to see a past that is alien to us as clearly, truly, and immediately as we see our own experience. This is the quality of memory beyond knowledge. To appropriate Eliot’s words again, memory conceives of the historical past “with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects.” With this distinctness and directness we gain a view of what we could not, perhaps would not, hope to know in the course of our own lives. I hope I never attend an act of vigilante justice like the one Harry Terrel describes, but I can begin to imagine the heady mix of desperation and self-righteousness that impels such an act; how the organizing sanity of civilization might appear to recede, until it seems not only possible but necessary to string a judge up at the fairground.
From the lofty banks of the Chesapeake Bay
The best example I have seen of how historical memory can illuminate comes from a lecture by David Blight, an American historian. As a graduate student writing about Frederick Douglass, Blight once spent a day in the company of a Douglass biographer named Dick Preston, touring the places Douglass had lived in Maryland as a young slave. Blight, who is a wonderful story-teller, recounted the trip in a 2008 lecture:3
What Blight saw when he turned around, and what Douglass hadn’t made up, was the view from Covey’s farm of the Chesapeake Bay, and of the ships that sail it. Looking down at the vessels, Blight remembered how Douglass had seen this sight one hundred and fifty years before. “Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe,” wrote Douglass in his 1845 autobiography.
[Dick Preston] lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, that much I knew, which is where Douglass grew up [...] Called him, he said, ‘Yeah, come on out to the Eastern Shore, meet me in the Easton Community College parking lot at 9 a.m.,’ on whatever Wednesday morning it was in July. ‘I’ll give you a tour of the sites of Douglass’s youth.’
It was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. I folded myself into his station wagon and we drove back roads all over the Eastern Shore. He took me for a walk through a muddy cornfield, as I believe it, out to the back lot of a field, to a bend in Tuckahoe Creek, and he said, ‘This is where Douglass was born. Here’s where [his] Grandmother Betsy’s cabin was.’
Then he took me down all kinds of back roads [...] And then he said, ‘Do you want to see Covey’s Farm?’ Edward Covey, the so-called slave-breaker Douglass had been hired out to, or sent to, by his master Thomas Auld, when he was a 17-year-old, quite rebellious and rather uncontrollable teenager. I said, ‘Sure, show me Covey’s farm.’ Then back roads again that I couldn’t find today if my life depended on it. We get out of a car and, in my memory, we stepped over a fencepost, we walked out this ridge, and Dick said something like ‘turn around.’
And there they were. He hadn’t made it up.
Blight calls this passage “the most beautiful metaphor in anti-slavery literature.” But, he adds, “sometimes a metaphor is not just a metaphor.” Of course I don’t know what thoughts passed through Blight’s mind as he stood on that hill. But listening to his story, I felt as though he were inviting me to conceive, with the directness of sense, what is so compelling yet so utterly inaccessible in Douglass’s narrative: the condition of an unfree man.
Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of them always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:—
‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the globe; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! Oh, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.’
I absolutely cannot imagine what it is like to be a slave. If anyone other than a slave can imagine such a thing, I am not that person. But I know what it is like to be fixed on the shore, envious of a thing in motion at sea. For Douglass, the beautiful vessels that sailed the Chesapeake were the physical incarnation of freedom. He was as near and as far from those vessels on the ridge at Covey’s farm as he was from the life of a free man. Conceive of that tantalizing separation; the feeling of longing, the sense of affront, the disbelief and anguish, the rage that must have arisen in Douglass’s breast. I can’t conceive it, quite; but standing in my mind’s eye on that lofty bank of that noble bay, with the ghost of Douglass speaking in my ear, I can almost imagine.
1 For a detailed account of the Continental Army’s quest for supplies in the first year of the war, read David C. Hsiung’s paper “Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War for Independence, 1775-1776.”
2 Readers interested in the ongoing project of untangling the history of the Civil War from Lost Cause mythology should check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writings on this topic over at the Atlantic. A recent post on the bandit Jesse James is a good example, but Coates and his readers have been on the case for a while.
3 The lecture was part of a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction taught by Professor Blight at Yale in spring 2008. Audio files and transcripts of the entire course are available, free, through Yale; this story comes at the end of the fifth lecture.