Memory by Anne Whitehead

Sarah Shewchuk


Whitehead, Anne. Memory. London; New York: Routledge, 2009. 173 pp. Print. The New Critical Idiom Ser.


Memory is a recent addition to Routledge’s The New Critical Idiom Series edited by John Drakakis. A collection of “introductory books which seeks to extend the lexicon of literary terms in order to address the radical changes which have taken place in the study of literature during the last decades of the twentieth century” (Drakakis n.pag.), this series includes works such as Ecocriticism by Greg Gerrard, Genders by David Glover and Cora Kaplan, Historicism by Paul Hamilton, Intertextuality by Graham Allen, Modernism by Peter Childs and The Historical Novel by Jerome de Groot (see Tegan Zimmerman’s review in this issue). As these examples demonstrate, the series explores key themes and ideas in “individual volumes” as a way of assessing the changing nature of literary studies at large (Drakakis n.pag.).

For, as the recent American Comparative Literature State of the Discipline Reports reveal and as Drakakis contends,

The current state of the discipline of literary studies is one where there is considerable debate concerning basic questions of terminology. This involves, among other things, the boundaries which distinguish the literary from the non-literary; the position of literature within the larger sphere of culture; the relationship between literatures of different cultures; and questions concerning the relationship of literary to other cultural forms within the context of interdisciplinary studies. (Saussy n.pag.)

By testing the boundaries of each of these four categories, The New Critical Idiom Series challenges the reader to reflect upon the role of specific ideas in the history of literary studies and the ways in which these ideas can be used to chart new directions for future thought.

In line with the aforementioned objectives, Anne Whitehead, author of Trauma Fiction and editor of Theories of Memory: A Reader, enters into her examination of the role of memory in Western history and culture in the context of the debate surrounding “the current preoccupation with memory” in both the academy and society (2). Whitehead begins the Introduction with Andreas Huyssen’s statement that Western culture is “obsessed with the idea of memory,” and she explores a variety of factors that have contributed to this obsession, including changing technologies, the “quest[s] for roots” that have been undertaken by “immigrant and diasporic populations,” a “proliferation of [and increased access to] archives” of various kinds and attempts to understand and memorialize twentieth-century genocides (1, 2). Yet, as Whitehead notes, not all scholars have seen this emphasis on memory as productive or positive: Charles Maier regards the current preoccupation with memory as an “addiction,” and Kerwin Lee Klein is “wary of the tendency in memory discourse to elevate memory ‘to the status of historical agent,’ so that ‘archives remember and statues forget’” (3). In order to grapple with the implications of these differing viewpoints, Whitehead places the contemporary preoccupation with memory within a larger historical context (3). In this way, by examining how our understanding of memory has changed over time, Whitehead argues against “the tendency in recent memory work to regard the current memory boom as unique and unprecedented” (3-4). By demonstrating that “memory has a history” and by tracing “a parallel history of the concept of forgetting” in Western culture, Whitehead explores how our current preoccupation with memory influences our relationship to both the present and the past (4, 13).

Whitehead has divided Memory into four separate but interrelated chapters in which she charts the history of memory from ancient Greece to the present day. In chapter one, “Memory and Inscription,” she begins with an analysis of Plato’s conception of memory in the context of both the oral and written traditions. Particular emphasis is placed on Plato’s Theaetetus and Phaedrus as well as Jacques Derrida’s response to the latter text (15, 21-22). Upon this foundation, Whitehead explores the role of memory through to the Renaissance, touching upon Aristotle, the rhetorical tradition of ancient Rome and the relationship between “memory and the book” (23, 28, 38). In chapter two, “Memory and the Self,” Whitehead examines the Enlightenment and the Romantic period and assesses how changing notions of the self affected how the “the past” was “(re)figured in memory” during these periods in time (51). Here, she explores the work of John Locke and David Hume and provides a close reading of sections of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) and William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (1798) (51, 59, 64, 75). In the third chapter, “Involuntary Memories,” Whitehead moves into the nineteenth century, exploring the development of history as a discipline and what Richard Terdiman labels as the “memory crisis” that occurred in the wake of the French Revolution (7, 85). In this chapter, she focuses on the work of Sigmund Freud, examining the role of memory in the development of psychoanalysis, as well as on Henry Bergson’s Matter and Memory (1896) and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (c1913-1927) (88, 102, 104). In each of these books, Whitehead aims to show how the burden of memory “threatens to overwhelm the present,” an idea that underscores her discussion of memory in the twentieth-century in Chapter Four (8). With an emphasis on the work of Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Nora, Jay Winter and James Young in the final chapter, entitled “Collective Memory,” Whitehead examines how traumatic events, particularly the Holocaust, have affected our contemporary understanding of memory and memorialization in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (125,139, 147, 149, 150). 

Whitehead weaves a series of themes into the chronological structure I have described, namely “inscription, spatial memory, and body metaphors,” which are used to illustrate the differences and linkages between how memory was conceptualized at different points in time (9). Creating these differentiations and connections allows Whitehead to support her supposition that “we might more pertinently talk of ‘memories’ than of memory” in order to encompass the “plurality” that delineations such as the “art of memory,” “Romantic memory,” “traumatic memory” and “collective memory” imply (9). Linking themes and time periods also allows Whitehead to create an implicit connection between memory and forgetting. In the conclusion, “The Art of Forgetting?,” Whitehead contends that we should “dwell a little longer with the possibility of forgetting” since “it is an inseparable and not always sufficiently recognized aspect of memory itself, and because some measure of forgetting is a necessary requirement for personal and civic health” (13, 156-57). Her assertion is supported by the publication of recent works such as Michael Bernard-Donals’ Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust, in which the author examines the implications of the idea “that memory and forgetfulness are facets of the same phenomenon of understanding” (3). It is fitting, then, that Whitehead ends her examination of the history of memory with a nod towards this direction for further thought.

When read in comparison with Jonathan K. Foster’s Memory: A Very Short Introduction, which utilizes a more scientific and applied approach, it is possible to see the importance of Whitehead’s book for students studying historical, literary and philosophical aspects of memory. Accordingly, Memory would be a valuable introductory text for classes on trauma, Holocaust studies and life writing, just as it would be useful for more advanced students who are interested in a concise examination of the history of the field. In addition to the chapters I outlined, the text also includes a glossary of key terms and an extensive bibliography, both of which are excellent resources. Perhaps the only limitation of the book is its emphasis on memory within a Western context. While this parameter is necessary for controlling the length and density of an introductory text, a comparative examination of memory in a more global context would be a fascinating area for future research. Yet, with this introductory resource, Whitehead makes a valuable contribution to the study of memory in the Western literary tradition by exploring the ways in which we shape, and are shaped by, our understanding of the past.


Works Cited


Bernard-Donals, Michael. Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009. Print.

Drakakis, John. Preface. Memory. London; New York: Routledge, 2009. Print. The New Critical Idiom Ser.

Foster, Jonathan K. Memory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Saussy, Haun, ed.Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.




Sarah Shewchuk is a PhD Candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. Her doctoral research into Holocaust literature is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the University of Alberta and the Dan David Foundation. Trained as an opera singer, Sarah’s other research interests include the relationship between literature, music and the visual arts. 



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