History and Memoir: Ordinary Life as History

by Ron Wells.

Some people reading this may recall Dr. Dale Brown, formerly of the English Department at Calvin. He was the guiding light of the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. He is now at King College in Tennessee, where he directs The Buechner Institute, which, as its web page reads, is an institute in which faith engages culture.

A few weeks ago my wife (Academic Dean at Maryville College, a Presbyterian school near Knoxville) and I went up to King College. It is located in Bristol, Tennessee, a remarkable small city, in which one side of State Street is in Virginia, and the other side is in Tennessee. We went to attend the annual Buechner lecture, in which the institute brings in major lecturers to talk about the intersection of faith, writing and the life of the mind. In past years we have heard Frederick Buechner himself, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Barbara Brown Taylor, and other well-known writers. This year we heard Patricia Hampl, who is perhaps not as well known as those just mentioned. But, by the end of this blog, I hope she will have gained some new readers.

Hampl is a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota. She charmed the audience in beginning her remarks by noting that her first assignment on a publication was the literary magazine at Carlton College, where her editor was Garrison Keillor, now the famed host of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Hampl lives in St. Paul, just a few doors down from Keillor; her home was once owned by the family of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Well, with that introduction, we listeners were in the palm of her hand!

Tell Me TrueWhat has made Patricia Hampl well known is her analytical writing about, and the actual practice of, the art of memoir. After the lecture, I bought a book of essays that Hampl edited with the historian Elaine Tyler May, also of the University of Minnesota. The book is Tell Me True: Memoir, History and Writing a Life   (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).  The underlying message of the book is that one poses a false alternative in seeing memoir and history in opposition. Professor May, in her essay in the book, “Confessions of a Memoir Thief,” writes: “perhaps my little secret is the secret of most historians….We are interested in the past viewed through our own eyes. In my case, I have managed to investigate the environments of my family over three generations. So have I stolen these minimemoirs to write my own megamemoir? I am a historian. I am a memoir thief.”

That evening, lecturing in east Tennessee, Patricia Hampl referred to her own book – The Florist’s Daughter –a memoir about her own Czech father, who was a florist in St. Paul (the The Florist's Daughterbook was on the New York Times best seller list for a while).  In the book she writes a memoir of the life of ordinary people, and thus illumines the lives of us all. She is particularly taken with what she calls “the personal modesty of ordinary lives.” Let’s listen to Patricia Hampl’s own voice about what she means: “This modesty is what must not be lost in the telling of our lives. The glory of the ordinary is an oxymoron, but ordinary life is family life, daily life, what we cherish and strive to sustain. Yet it is always lost, over and over, again and again, war by war, age by slippery age. And so to write an elegy, as I learned again with my book about Mother and Dad, is to write history, and to write history is to write an elegy.”

This line of thought resonates deeply in my own thinking. As a student, I was first awakened to American Social History when I read in my Sociology course, The Sociological Imagination by the legendary C. Wright Mills. The main insight, as Mills wrote, was to connect the dots, so to speak, between “private troubles and public issues.” As David Blight, one of the foremost historians of the American Civil War, wrote; “The concepts of history and memory represent two attitudes toward the past, two streams of historical consciousness that must at some point flow together.”

Patricia Hampl is also a Christian, a life-long member of the Catholic Church. Her writing is unembarrassed in allowing her faith commitments have a place (though a careful and non-triumphalist place) in the narrative.  For those in the Calvin History Department, Hampl gives another, though subtle, angle of vision on what it might mean to be a historian – that is, a memoirist – of faith.

Garrison Keillor did well to give Patricia Hampl her start at Carleton College. Readers in our time, especially historical students, would do well to allow her to open our eyes in new ways. For me, it was delightful to be challenged; sitting in a lecture at a college in a town where A.P. and Maybelle Carter and her famous daughter June (later Cash) sang “the old timey music” on the radio for the first time ever. Indeed, driving home the next day, along the Smoky Mountains, we discussed the art of truly telling our lives, and those of others, and asked:  will the circle be unbroken?

Ronald A. Wells is professor of history emeritus. He is the author of History Through the Eyes of Faith and other books. He was an editor of Fides et Historia and of The Reformed Journal. With James D. Bratt he is co-editor of the book, The Best of the Reformed Journal. He is now mostly retired and lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

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