The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory, Part I

Note: This is the first post in a two part serialization of a seminar paper I wrote this last semester for a class in the modern(ist) short story sequence. As examples of the genre, we read Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, In Our Time, Go Down, Moses, The Golden Apples, The Maples’ Stories, and Cathedral. Along the way, we engaged several theories that lend themselves well to reading the genre of the short story sequence, one of which was Wolfgang Iser‘s brand of reader-response theory, which you’ll get a little taste of toward the end of this post.

Instead of engaging one of the texts we read in class for my paper, I decided to apply myself toward a reading of Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, which, as my introduction details, has variously been read as a collection of short stories (though not a short story sequence/cycle, which, among other things, presupposes a greater degree of connection between the cycle’s narratives) and as a collection of personal essays. Rather, I make a case here for the book as what Sandra A. Zagarell calls a narrative of community (sorry for the lack of accessibility to Zagarell’s article; this front-page view is the best I can do with what the web gives me).

I’ve tried to steer clear of reliance on litcrit jargon here, but I’m not sure how successful I’ve been. Your feedback on such matters is more than welcome as I try to expand this draft (potentially) into a publishable article. In other words, if I’m not clear, tell me, and I’ll do my best to become clear.

Today’s post sets the theoretical stage for my discussion. Part two, which I’ll post tomorrow, digs into the meat of Sorensen’s text, though, I must admit, I wasn’t able to spend as much time with each narrative here as I’d like to (due to time constraints, etc.). I do plan, however, to flesh out my discussion of these stories and the connections between them and the generic qualities of the narrative of community a bit more as I move through the revision process.

So in short, I’m using this venue as a trial run for my critical (re)exploration of Sorensen’s text.

* * * * *

The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory: Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing Is Long Ago and/as the Narrative of Community

* * * * *

“A Dream Dreamed Out of Memory”

Virginia Sorensen’s 1963 collection of short stories, Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, has been variously categorized as a compilation of personal essays and as a memoir. Eugene England claims the former when he observes that “the myriad judgments of people, acts, choices, etc., which establish a recognizable shape of belief [and community] in Where Nothing Is Long Ago have to do directly with real people, including Sorensen herself.” Sorensen’s “real” presence–the presence of her “realness,” her lived reality–oversees the narratives of the book, England claims, because she inserts herself here as the implied author, as the voice of authority and experience through which each textual movement must be mediated and understood. Thus standing between narrative and flesh and blood reality, England continues, “she [. . .] reveal[s] her present self through the fiction of revealing her past self,” a rhetorical act through which “she also [. . .] creat[es] herself anew before our eyes and hearts” by enacting “the power of the recreated truth of real experience in the past.” In this light, the only fictions at work here are the acts of memory Sorensen claims for herself–and these “recreated truth[s],” as England implies, fall within the acceptable limits of memory and the faults thereof (qtd. in Howe x).

For England, then, the personal essay trumps the short story as a label for the narratives in Where Nothing Is Long Ago because “our ethical response” to the tales is likely to be different “if we believe that at least a major part of the [retold] experience was really real–that it indeed happened in real time and space to people like us” (qtd. in Howe x). In short, we’re more likely to trust Sorensen and to be persuaded of the narrative authenticity of her “memories” if the material she offers is presented in terms we can recognize and acknowledge as true to her childhood experiences. Giving the text the generic designation “collection of personal essays” thus saves us from feeling deceived by Sorensen. If she says these stories are “memories from a Mormon childhood” and if we know they’re offered as personal essays, they must be what they claim to be–memories gathered from actual, lived experience in the real world. Any deviations from reality in these recreated truths must therefore be due to the natural inconsistencies of memory, not to the author’s deliberate attempts to distort and exaggerate her past.

Yet, Sorensen was annoyed with her designation as a personal essayist because, above all, she “considered herself [. . .] a fiction writer” and felt the claim that she was a personal essayist “wrenched her work out of its authentic genre” (Howe xi), disrupting the power of intention and (re)created identity flowing through her fictionalized experiences. As she confessed in a 1980 interview, “All my life I was escaping into poetry and stories and liked to embroider everything even if I told something.” Also: “I am busy with fiction all the time. Nobody must every use my books historically” (qtd. in Howe xi). This confession that she enjoyed embroidering experience and that her narratives should not be read as exactly historical suggests a reexamination of Where Nothing Is Long Ago‘s categorization as a collection of personal essays and as a memoir. For while the collection does toy with the notions of autobiography and memory typically associated with the personal essay and the memoir, Sorensen readily admits in the book’s dedication that “so much [of her fictional world] is “˜made up’ it is scarcely memory at all, but a dream dreamed out of memory”–a rich collection of fictions embroidered from the dynamic and interactive threads of the unconscious and the conscious minds.

I submit that this layering of dream upon memory, of memory upon dream, of perception upon an individual’s recollection of and experience with the past and with the world and community of her past, binds Sorensen’s stories together in an episodic sequence of fictions such as Sandra A. Zagarell calls the “narrative of community,” a tradition of texts that “take as their subject the life of a community (life in “˜its everyday aspects’) and [that] portray the minute and quite ordinary processes through which the community maintains itself as an entity” (499). Assuming Sorensen’s text as not just a collection of stories, but as a cycle of stories framed by and arising from the author’s personal community experience allows for a fruitful exploration of the text’s recursive movement in and out of time as the narrator attempts to understand and to come to terms with the community of her childhood. Through this movement and in the ironic distance she maintains between the field of childhood selves and the Mormon community she discovers/(re)creates in her stories and the meaning she finds in those stories, the narrator constructs an “ethically complex and sympathetic” identity (Howe xii) through which she mediates the reader’s experience with the text, inviting us into her community of narratives as she negotiates the gaps, connections, and mythos of memory. And all this to the end of presenting and preserving “the patterns, customs, and activities” through which the community of her childhood is “maintained and perpetuated” and of “nurturing a commitment to community in [her] readers” (Zagarell 500).

Negotiating Minute and Ordinary Processes: The Narrative of Community as Phenomenological Event

In her discussion of women writers’ use of the episodic narrative sequence to represent the feminine experience, Sandra A. Zagarell sets down a theory of a woman’s genre–“a matrix of interpretation,” as Roxanne Harde calls Zagarell’s work (viii)–that focuses on the ethos and subject matter of a text, that privileges community values over the autonomous individual, and that is more concerned with process over the conflict or progress intuited by linear narratives. Zagarell’s coinage, “narrative of community,” aptly describes the ways in which women, as Sarah Orne Jewett and her The Country of Pointed Firs, have “take[n] as their subject the life of a community” and set out to capture the “minute and quite ordinary processes” of community maintenance. These are no grand narratives in which an epic hero–autonomous, alone–leaves his community in search of something greater and returns transformed. Rather, such story structures focus on the self as one part of an “interdependent network” of selves (as each story is part of a network of episodes) and take as their program a response to–even, at times, a critique of–“the social, economic, cultural, and demographic changes” brought on “by industrialism, urbanization, and the spread of capitalism” (499). As such, narratives of community are “built primarily around the continuous small-scale negotiations and daily procedures through which communities sustain themselves” in the face of potential dissolution and rapid social change.

As Zagarell has it, “narratives of community represent [and mediate] th[is] contrast between community life and the modern world directly through participant/observer narrators” who “typically seek to diminish this distance in the process of giving voice to it” (503). Such voiced negotiations of “the patterns, customs, and activities” through which each community is “maintained and perpetuated” (500) are thus meant to raise awareness of the potential of and for communal life as an emancipatory alternative to the fragmented nature of modern societies. Through this increased awareness–facilitated by the presentation and examination of the everyday details of community life, which details are “integral parts of semiotic systems of the community” (503)–readers can gain access to the community’s means to meaning and enter the mythos and enjoy the connections of a shared communal past.

Wolfgang Iser posits a possible theory for this kind of reading event in “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” when he observes that, “[a]s a starting point for phenomenological analysis[,] we might examine the way in which sequent sentences [and by extension, larger textual bodies, as paragraphs or stories] act upon one another” (1003)–that is, the cumulative effect they generate or produce in terms of 1) the unfolding narrative itself and 2) the interaction between the text and the reader. As a means of theorizing the intersection of these relationships, Iser suggests two principles by which the “virtual dimension” of a text–the semantic space in which perception marries language and creates meaning–“may be brought into being”: anticipation and retrospection–or in terms of this essay, the acts of critique and memory. He explores the affect these principles produce in readers by turning to Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden, who, Iser comments, “has [“¦] drawn attention to” the regenerative yet halting relationship between the two, “ascrib[ing] a quite remarkable significance to it” in the process (1005). Ingarden writes:

Once we [as readers] are immersed in the flow of Satzdenken (sentence-thought), we are ready, after completing the thought of one sentence, to think out the “continuation,” also in the form of a sentence–and that is, in the form of a sentence that connects up with the sentence we have just thought through. In this way the process of reading goes effortlessly forward. But if by chance the following sentence has no tangible connection whatever with the sentence we have just thought through, there then comes a blockage in the stream of thought. This hiatus is linked with a more or less active surprise, or with indignation. This blockage must be overcome if the reading is to flow once more. (Qtd. in Iser “The Reading Process” 1005)

Iser comments that, from Ingarden’s perspective, this “hiatus that blocks the flow of sentences is [“¦] the product of chance, and is to be regarded as a flaw.” This is so because if a “sentence sequence”–and by extension the movement between paragraphs or narrative scenes–is supposed to be “a continual flow,” the hiatus halts the textual (inter)action by refusing to gratify “the anticipation aroused by one sentence” and that a reader expects “will [“¦] be realized by the next.” Textual gaps thus “arouse feelings of exasperation” in readers that may disintegrate (to a degree) any relationships that have developed through the reader’s engagement with the text (1005).

Iser postulates a more productive view of the textual hiatus, however, when he suggests that this “frustration of [readerly] expectations”–as can happen when a text is between genres, as Where Nothing Is Long Ago, and when a text contains an episodic narrative structure, as narratives of community–these interruptions of the narrative flow, can lead us “in unexpected directions,” giving us the “opportunity [“¦] to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections–for filling in the gaps left by the text itself” (1005). In this view, the disruptions between sentence- and narrative-level relationships encourage readers “to make [their] own decision[s] as to how the gap is to be filled” (1005). By so minding the gaps that occur “in each articulated reading moment,” during which “only segments of textual perspectives are present in the reader’s wandering viewpoint” (“Interaction” 112-3), readers are “ma[d]e [“¦] aware of the nature of our own capacity for providing links” between phenomenological events (as ideas, experiences, perceptions, bodies, texts, etc.) (“The Reading Process” 1005-6). In this light, the virtual dimension of the text becomes a dynamic hypertextual space defined by the perceptions and experiences we bring to our reading–and the expansive “”˜spectrum’ of connections” made possible through those constantly evolving perceptions (1005)–and in which our humanity is affirmed in the quest to engage in “infinitely richer” readings of the text at hand (1006).

2 thoughts on “The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory, Part I”

  1. It seems to me that once you raise the issue of fiction vs. personal essay, as England does, that that shatters any attempt to approach the works as an authentic personal essay. Granted, the authenticity of the memoir/person essay is already suspect (see the Banner of Heaven rehash over at the Bloggernacle Times), but I think that there is still a certain suspension of disbelief that occurs that is different from the suspension of disbelief with fiction and the key component to that suspension is not so much if the author got everything right, but more if the reader perceives the author as engaging in the project with the intention of being truthful and accurately representing the story being related.

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