Letters from the Past

It has been a long time since my last post. There is no specific reason. Life has remained busy, but not significantly busier than any other period in the years since I started this blog. But it has been harder to write, not just blog posts but everything – book reviews, articles, conference presentations, even emails. With the official publication of An Equal Burden in February, the pressure to write regularly has been lessened, and there has also been the on-going challenge of dealing with the emotions around my mother’s death.

The second of these has, I think, had the more profound impact on my failure to write here. In the first place, Mum was integral to this blog from the moment I set it up; from the start, she was my imagined audience, the person I so often wrote for. It was her voice in my ear telling me that my use of language was too academic, advising me to write shorter, clearer sentences, reminding to proofread multiple times before publishing. But there have also been other emotions that have arisen every time I have thought about writing here, relating to the points where my private and professional life intersect. Prime among these have been regret that Mum didn’t live long enough to see the book published – although she did get to see proofs of the cover – and guilt about how, as a social historian, I dealt with a very small part of my mother’s legacy.

It feels as if it is probably too late celebrate the book publication on here. There will be a formal launch in September (if I can ever pin down a suitable venue!) which may provide another opportunity. But, after several months of saying that I need to tell and reflexively explore the story of how I failed as a historian when clearing my mother’s apartment, this feels like the right time to do so, and, in doing so, start to revivify this blog.

So, the story. Mum died at the end of August 2018 in New York City. Both my siblings and I were at her side but both my sister (who lives in Colorado) had family and professional claims on us that meant we needed to return home soon after. There was no funeral but we made plans for a memorial service in the city in November, with my sister and I staying on for a week afterwards to help clear Mum’s apartment in preparation for its sale.

That week was, without question, one of the hardest of my life. We had moved to the apartment when I was 18 months old. It was the only childhood home my siblings had known, as well as being the place my mother drew her final breath. It had been renovated to suit her taste and was filled to the brim with her things – not only over 6,000 books but a lifetime’s collection of cooking equipment, bedding, family photographs and writings. There was all the medication from her final illness, but also all the audiotapes we had listened to on car rides as children, as well as enough stationary to keep a small company going for several years.

It took the three of us, supported by my brother- and sister-in-law, the full week to sort and clear the bulk of it. The most exhausting elements were the photographs and writings that my mother had stored in cupboards and boxes all over the house, sometimes in multiple copies. Either through a historical instinct to archive and preserve, or because I am naturally more sentimental, I chose to keep a larger number photographs and many of the papers relating to my mother’s education and professional life (although my brother has her computer hard drive, copied onto multiple external drives, a process which in itself took most of the week). I also took the bulk of the family archive, the documents relating to my mother’s parents and grandparents, including all the material she had collected researching her family’s history in her final years.

It was on the final day, the day my sister and her husband were flying out, the day before I was leaving to return to the UK, that it happened. I was going through the last few storage boxes in Mum’s bedroom that, somehow, hadn’t yet been looked at. Most contained books related to her teaching and additional copies of essays from her Master’s Degree course at Columbia. The books would be donated; the papers could be destroyed. But, right at the end, I cam across the two boxes of letters. The first was easy enough to deal with as it contained her correspondence with my father over the course of their courtship and marriage; those would come with me as part of her archive. The second also contained letters, but this time in many, and often unfamiliar, handwritings. Some were from names I knew; others were apparent strangers. It took me a moment to realise that this was the correspondence my mother had received as a young Englishwoman living in New York in the years before not only the internet but even inexpensive international telephony. They were letters from friends about her life and theirs, full of news and names, most of which meant little to me.

For several minutes I sat looking at this collection. I couldn’t face going through it to see what should be kept and what discarded. I could have simply decided to bring it home with me, along with all the rest of the family papers, to put off the task to another day. But could I ever face it? Or I could have brought it home to keep unsorted, preserving these scraps of source material for someone else to examine. Yet so much of the material was from people I did not know even in terms of their relationship with my mother, rendering the letters themselves without meaning. Did I have the space to house these documents. I did not have the capacity, either emotional or physical to deal with them.

Yet I also found I did not have the emotional capacity to destroy them. I am a social and cultural historian. Letters, and personal letters in particular, are the lifeblood of my research. I can sit for days in archives reading just the sort of daily minutiae my mother’s letters contained about total strangers, sifting the in jokes and family gossip for words and phrases that illuminate their lives and experiences. My mother’s letters might, just might, be of equal value to some other, more dispassionate, reader, some day. Shredding them would destroy that capacity for ever – and even if I could have found an archive willing to take them, arranging this in the 24 hours I had left in the country would have been a logistic impossibility.

In the end, the only response I had to this dilemma was the instinctive one of the exhausted child – I fled to the room I had been sleeping in (my brother’s old bedroom), shut the door and howled. My sister, packing cleaning products in the kitchen next door, heard me and came to find out what was going on. I tried to explain through my tears, failed, and begged her to deal with the box. I couldn’t. More practical and less sentimental than I am, as well as a nurse by training and profession, she promptly shred them.

So the letters are gone, but as this post indicates, they haunt me still. As a daughter, I couldn’t give them space, either physically or emotionally. I know this now as clearly as I did that day in November. As a historian, I will always feel guilt that I was unable to do so. Some day a historian will write the quotidian history of transatlantic relations in the late 20th century, and I will wonder what they might have learned from that box of letters, that little bit of lost history.

What have I learned from this experience?  Nine months on I’m still not quite sure. That the materiality and emotionality of archives touches not just the creator of the sources and the historian examining it, but potentially anyone who encounters them in the process of their conservation, perhaps. Certainly I will return to the archives with a renewed respect for all those who, in the midst of mourning, found the capacity to preserve the past simply for the sake of that preservation.

In the meantime, five boxes and two folders of family history, including my father’s letters, sit in front of me as I write this. My ten-year-old son has, since his grandmother’s death, become fascinated by finding out more about his heritage. I have promised him we can open the boxes and start exploring them together this summer. Hopefully, as both a daughter and a mother, I can find the strength and courage to make good this promise.

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The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.