Two weeks ago I happened to catch a fascinating documentary on BBC4 about Abraham Lincoln. The show was called ‘Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner’, and it set out to interrogate the politics of memory in relation to one of the most popular, if mythologized, figures in American history. Having grown up with a clearly romanticized image of ‘Honest Abe’ as a national hero who freed the slaves and is accordingly memorialized in countless ways today, not least in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and on the face of the five dollar bill, I appreciated the clear-headed objectivity of the historiographical process evident in the documentary. I certainly came away from the hour-long programme with a fuller, more complete and more objective sense of Lincoln as a politician, one that will encourage me, in future, to view Lincoln’s legacy a little more critically than I have hitherto done.
The programme got me thinking about the ways in which cultural memory can lionize certain individuals, to the point where the reality of their lives is buried beneath a kind of mythology produced by the cultural and social mores of a succeeding period. A literary case in point is Charlotte Brontë, whose life and legacy were constructed according to very particular Victorian-era strictures on female behaviour by her first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. The resulting image of Brontë held wide sway throughout the Victorian period and into the twentieth century, with readers regularly making pilgrimages to Brontë country to pay homage to an author about whom they had only vaguely realistic ideas and perceptions. The same might be said about many of our so-called ‘canonical’ writers, as well as famed historical figures. While we might argue that the contemporary context of such figures is central to an understanding of their actions, it seems equally essential that we acknowledge the context in which scholarship and historiography are produced. This would help explain why certain individuals and texts receive an inordinate amount of critical attention, while others remain marginalized. Much Irish Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for instance, has suffered at the hands of the canonization of English writers like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, to the point where it often seems as if Irish writers simply didn’t engage with the Gothic aesthetic at all in this period. That this is patently untrue is clear from the litany of Gothic novels produced by Irish pens in the latter half of the eighteenth century alone: The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley (1760), Longsword (1762), The History of Lady Barton (1771), Earl Strongbow (1789), The Children of the Abbey (1796), and Clermont (1798), to name but a few.
Above all, the Abraham Lincoln documentary confirmed to me the importance of querying established modes of viewing (or, not viewing, as the case may be) historical patterns, figures, events and phenomena. Such habits of perception may have been produced, in the first instance, by innovative ways of seeing and writing about the world (think of the ways in which, for instance, feminist criticism recovered a whole body of literature by female writers with the unintended but unfortunate side effect of occluding equally marginalized male authors.) Nevertheless, the work of historians and literary critics alike seems to me to be one of constant interrogation, re-figuration and revaluation, not just of historical periods, events or figures but also of the critical methods with which we evaluate them. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating myths rather than discovering truths, unpleasant as they may be.