Posted on January 17, 2016


The other day I was working with the memoirs of a first cousin of mine, Robert Morris Clayton’s My People. Reading Morris’s memoir reminded me of all the people who I have known, and have passed away.

This led me to consider the role of memory in our lives. How we remember someone or something helps determine who we are, as individuals and as a people. Coincidentally, I came upon a book review in the WSJ of Jan. 2, 2016 on the writing of biographies and autobiographies, called “life-writings” these days among the trendy.

I did a “life-writing” once, of a sixteenth century Dominican priest, entitled Bartolomé de las Casas: A Biography (2012). After reading the review article in the WSJ about all the perils and pitfalls of biographies, I have no idea if I caught the real nature of the man and his life at all, and I took almost 500 pages to give it my best try.

I wrote a much shorter one about the same time, Bartolomé de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas (2011) and I suspect I caught at least as much of the essence of his life in the shorter one as in the fat one. If you are curious, I would recommend the latter, and, besides, it’s available on Kindle, and a lot cheaper than the fat one.

Biographies and autobiographies are, by their very nature, very subjective. No one is totally honest in an autobiography, and biographers don’t have access to the whole person they are writing about. But they are windows into our memories, both as individuals and as a culture. Put these together with the documentary record (the writings and other records left by any culture or civilization) and you have history of course.

Interpreting memory has become an important tool employed by modern historians searching for the real “truth” of the past. What does a people remember of their past? And how is memory factored into the present? In other words, what a people choose to remember tells us something of what they think of themselves. And, secondarily but no less important, these memories are then factored into making the present and future.

Americans, for example, like to think of themselves as an “exceptional” people and civilization, devoted to democracy, freedom, liberty, free enterprise, and all sorts of virtues, distinguishing us from other peoples. So our memory, our history, favors and remembers certain elements in our past—imbedded in our collective memory—better than others.

We also are honest enough to remember the bad with the good, like slavery, racial prejudice, and all sorts of vices, from lynching to persecutions of minorities and religions. Some of it is not only not edifying but also downright terrifying.

Today our memory grows not only with letters, memoirs, diaries, genealogies, and the lot, but also with emails, social media, and the effluvia of an electronic civilization. If you were doing a life-writing, for example, of a modern politician, you could not do it without plunging into the electronic world of instant, and often, volatile communications. However, as many have discovered, “volatile” does not necessarily mean ephemeral or temporary. A number of presidential candidates are discovering this today.

Memory also is a medical/psychological term, such as “she lost her memory” due to some shock to the head, or some other accident, or, perhaps, illness. Amnesia is a loss of memory, temporary or permanent. This is serious. What if we lost our history? Not just historians and journalists and the like, but scientists and inventors, pilots and surgeons? We are, if you think about it, the sum of the parts that all came before us, and which are stored in our memory.

Can we change our memory? Not really. It is fixed in place by nature. We can “loose” it occasionally, we can ignore the bad memories and certainly not include the embarrassing ones in our “life-writings,” but we can’t change our memory, any more than we can change our collective memory, called history.

Some like to tinker with our history to suit their sense of well-being and reflect what they think of themselves, much better than perhaps the true record merits.

Recently, the image and memory of one of the greatest air warriors of the twentieth century, General Curtis LeMay, was amended to suit modern sensibilities.

The cigar almost always in hand or chomped in the mouth of General LeMay was airbrushed out of his portrait that hangs in the Officers Club of Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery. It didn’t seem right for one of our heroes to be smoking a smelly, old cigar.

The University of Alabama also recently “airbrushed” another general, and later Senator, John Tyler Morgan, from the wall of a building named after him.

Perhaps Senator Morgan, how hanging somewhere in the dark, found General LeMay’s cigar and is happily smoking away, in spite of their detractors with very selective memories.

Published as “The Role of Memory in Our Lives,” Jan. 24, 2016 in The Tuscaloosa News.