IN THE MEMORY HOUSE
“Visitors to New England usually arrive with a lot of baggage,” says Howard Mansfield. “They are weighted down by a lifetime of Norman Rockwell, and Currier and Ives. They want nostalgia and quaintness. In the Memory House is an attempt to see New England plain. I was looking for the contours of historical memory itself.”
“Memory is a defining characteristic of New England-this great desire to mark the landscape with historical monuments, to crowd little museums full of small acts of homage, and to tell certain stories,” writes Mansfield.
Each essay in the book is about a moment of commemoration — or the failure to commemorate. “At such moments, our aspirations are on full view. When we seek to honor something, we are staking a claim: This is us. In history, unlike heredity, we choose our ancestors.”
Mansfield visited many small museums and local historical societies which he calls “memory houses.” He examined the changes in Town Meeting and the changes in our local landscape: the loss of the elms, and the bulldozing of an entire neighborhood, Boston’s West End. He explored the histories of Franklin Pierce, Thoreau, Johnny Appleseed and Jack Kerouac.
“We have journeyed a long way, once ever so optimistically, and find ourselves far removed from the one-room schoolhouse and the swimming hole, from the horse car and elm-lined Main Street,” says Mansfield. “We try nostalgia, elegy, jeremiad. All our efforts at recollection, and somewhere the past itself, are in the memory house.”