Category Archives: memory

August 13, 2014, 9:26 pm


It’s time to shut down The Edge of the American West. It’s been a long run, and I’ve enjoyed it, but blogging has become less compelling over the last year or so. I want to stop before writing for Edge actively becomes a chore. The blog has already had a number of lives, and different configurations, but I suspect that this is the last one. I’m proud of what I did here (and proud of what others did as well). Thanks for reading it.

The Chronicle will keep the archives of the blog running for the foreseeable future, so everyone’s wisdom will still show up in Google searches now and then. I’d like to thank all those who wrote large and small things for the blog – Vance, Kathy, my army of guest bloggers – for their efforts. I’d especially like to thank Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway for starting up the blog and making it something that (even) William Gibson appreciated.

David Silbey

January 13, 2014, 4:54 pm

The Life and Death of Technologies

The dial tone is nearly a century old, leading the New York Times to do a magazine piece on it. The article is interesting, and you should read it, but it made me think of the life and death of technologies. Something like the dial tone has already largely disappeared from American life. My daughter will likely have no idea what it was. Phrases associated with disappearing technologies will shift out of everyday use:


And “video cassette recorder:”


Something much less familiar, pneumatic tubes, which were quite frequently used in the mid-20th century:


My sense is that technologies go from being leading-edge to being standard to being old fashioned to being antique. At first, a new technology is a marvel, then it is assumed, then it is past it, and then they are answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. Ten years ago, an author might have given their fictional character a…

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November 11, 2013, 3:53 pm

11 am on 11/11/18

Old men and women in corners,
With tears falling fast on their cheeks

Robert Graves, “Armistice Day, 1918″
IMG 2385

April 16, 2013, 8:25 pm

Brought Us Safe Thus Far

Judy Collins, the Boston Pops, and the audience doing “Amazing Grace,” in Boston’s Symphony Hall, 1976:

October 5, 2012, 6:14 pm

The Passing of Memory

I’ve commented on this before, but the topic has a elegiac fascination. Every memory passes from earth eventually, but sometimes, when an organization has been built to commemorate that event, the passing becomes more public. Thus, too, with the Submarine Veterans of World War II:

It was difficult for the national organization to find members able to serve as officers and to complete all of the administrative tasks. In their last roster, published 10 years ago, the pages listing the deceased members outnumbered those listing active members.

“The guys said, ‘I was all for staying. My shipmate came to the convention with me. He’s gone now and I don’t feel like coming,’“ said Kraus, 91, of Crescent Springs, Ky.

The organization officially disbanded this year. Local chapters could continue if they felt like it. The memories–a few of them–survive in a form, in oral…

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September 11, 2012, 3:32 pm

On This Day Of Mourning

On this day of mourning, there are further revelations about how badly the Bush Administration bungled in the run up to 9/11 (and stealing a meme from Brad DeLong). During the summer of 2001, the intelligence community desperately tried to warn President Bush that Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had an attack planned against the United States. The August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing was entitled, in about as direct a way as possible “Bin Laden determined to strike in United States.” That PDB came out as part of the work of the 9/11 commission. But that was not the only briefing that summer, according to the New York Times:

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later…

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August 20, 2012, 4:34 pm

Winston Churchill thinks Paul Ryan says stupid things.

For historians, the fun of presidential election season comes when candidates start playing games with history. Often this takes the form of “you don’t know me, but remember that great guy? I’m like that guy.” The thing is, politicians generally don’t know squat about that guy; they’re just looting the iconography of civilization for their own momentary convenience.

Case in point: Paul Ryan tries to get voters to understand him by saying,

“You know what I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. I have a bust of Winston Churchill in my office right now,” Ryan said. “Winston Churchill probably got it right when he said the Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, so I think we’re at that point. This is an inflection point, this is a choice of two futures.”

Winston Churchill, of course, did not have politics anything like…

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June 12, 2012, 1:18 am

On liberalism and history, and Kazin and Alterman & Mattson.

Not to pile on, but there’s also this, in the new Democracy. Unlike the aforementioned TLS essay, the whole thing is online; here’s a short excerpt:

The single moment that made postwar liberalism feel most like a cause worth fighting for came in the darkness of April 4, 1968, when an Indianapolis crowd, assembled to hear Robert F. Kennedy campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead met a man obliged to tell them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. When Kennedy broke the news, a desperate wail burst from the throats of those gathered, a sound unlike any other, bespeaking the tide of anguish and anger about to rush over the republic, sweeping reason before it—but not yet, or not here, not if Kennedy had his way.

Speaking off the cuff, he claimed a shared sorrow—his own brother had been killed in the line of political duty, at a time when he had begun…

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May 22, 2012, 3:32 pm

Now, That’s An Obituary

From Robert E. Lee’s obituary, the New York Times October 13, 1870:

In [Lee's] farewell letter to Gen. SCOTT, he spoke of the struggle which this step had cost him, and his wife declared that he “wept tears of blood over this terrible war.” There are probably few who doubt the sincerity of his protestation, but thousands have regretted, and his best friends will ever have to regret,the error of judgment, the false conception of the allegiance due to his Government and his country, which led one so rarely gifted to cast his lot with traitors, and devote his splendid talents to the execution of a wicked plot to tear asunder and ruin the Republic in whose service his life had hitherto been spent.

Lee’s application for amnesty and reinstatement as an American was lost for more than a century. Rediscovered in the 1970s, it led to Gerald Ford signing legislation that pardoned Lee and made…

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February 29, 2012, 7:16 pm

Contraband of war.

Students in my Civil War class tend to be fascinated by the disjuncture between the Lincoln of memory, who stands tall as the Great Emancipator, and the Lincoln of history, who only very gradually embraced emancipation as a necessity of war and then later as a moral imperative.* One of the crucial moments in that evolution was the controversy over treating slaves as contraband of war, an episode during which several of Lincoln’s generals, in fall 1861, outstripped their Commander-in-Chief and began practicing not-quite-emancipation on the ground. They refused to return slaves that crossed the Union lines to their former owners, leaving those people in an odd situation: not quite free, but no longer enslaved either.

The BBC has a story up about one of the sites where that controversy played out: the South Carolina Sea Islands. I have to admit that this is the kind of article that …

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February 10, 2012, 9:42 am

It’s a story about a photo, with no photo.

Why would you do a story about a photo, without the photo?

You know, it’s not as bad as Prince Harry, but even if these guys had no education, they must have seen a movie once. It’s hard to believe they didn’t have any idea.

February 3, 2012, 4:56 pm

FDR’s worst decision.

Franklin Roosevelt’s worst decision was Executive Order 9066, “Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas”, which is to say, interning Americans of Japanese descent.

The decision for internment had nothing to do with intelligence (particularly, as often alleged, from MAGIC cables) and everything to do with the conviction that “a Jap is a Jap,” as General John DeWitt said. I’ve never been very happy with historical explanations that start and end with “it’s racism,” but really … it’s racism. You can tell of course because there’s no similar simultaneous effort against Americans of German descent. You can tell because of Japoteurs and “Slap the Dirty Little Jap” and lots of other examples.

For my family, the war was the European war. My grandfather, a German-born American, had no trouble the way Japanese Americans did; he flew a bomber for the US in the war. We…

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January 20, 2012, 1:56 pm

In still another country.

If you don’t hear the key phrase here in John Cleese’s French accent, you’re dead inside.

The bill also would criminalize ‘outrageous minimization’ of the Armenian genocide.

Garton Ash, presumably wearing his poker face, points out only that “minimization” will be hard to figure, leaving out “outrageous” altogether.

September 18, 2010, 11:40 am

"I just saw a black woman on television, and she ain't no maid!"

Whoopi Goldberg’s reaction on first seeing Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. Apparently Nichols almost left the show because she had a Broadway offer, until a chance encounter with a fan changed her mind.

That fan was Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols recalls their conversation:

One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s you’re best, biggest fan and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs] and so I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, “I am…

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September 8, 2010, 12:25 am

Thomas Pynchon is a highly realistic author, pt. V.*

Vice Admiral and Mrs. William H.P. Blandy cut a mushroom-cloud cake as Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry looks on; November 5, 1946 at the Army War College in Washington, DC.

Via io9.

*No, there aren’t. I just couldn’t resist.