Story Not (Yet) My Own: First World War Correspondence and Prosthetic Memory
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In this paper I will explore the role of material culture in the convergence of narrative and memory with specific reference to a family archive of World War I letters and photos. I take as my jumping off point Michele Barrett’s insistence that her family’s war stories “do not derive from individual or cultural memory… there can be no personal memory attached to these family documents for someone my age looking at them now. But there is affect and these stories are very moving” (157, emphasis added). This speaks to the power of narrative, and, as Alison Landsberg reminds us, if the narrative is not there, or has been disrupted by the hiatuses of time and space, we may find ourselves obliged, like Quentin Compson and Shrevelin McCannon, to “make things up.” Here Landsberg is specifically writing against the assumption that “family memory, the memory handed down from a parent to a child [is a privileged and] reliable source of information about the past” (83). In the case of my family archive, before I viewed the photos or read the letters, there was the shadow of a story, but little more than that, given the generational distances and the gaps (both literal and otherwise) in existing texts. Add to this the “great silence” that characterized the First World War and its immediate aftermath (Nicolson) and “the presumed inadequacy of language itself to convey the facts about trench warfare”(Fussell 170). The writer of the most of the letters, Corporal Walter Sangster, was killed in action and his fellow-soldiers who survived were notorious for their inability--or unwillingness-- to communicate their experiences, even to members of their own families. Returning to Landsberg, I will argue that memories of the First World War are collective and social because they are the product of individual bereavements experienced on a mass scale (Winter 224). Photographs, letters, and similar trace objects found their way into trunks and boxes in thousands of households, and while neither commodities, nor mass media representations, they nonetheless have the capacity to evoke experiences not our own and interpellate us as “social, historical beings” (Landsberg 47). Almost a century later, and in ways not dissimilar to slavery or the holocaust, the ruptures and traumas of the First World War call for prosthetic interventions.