Doing History with the Dead on the Overland Trail, Beneath Paris, and in South Africa

AHA Session 233
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 401 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Andrew Bernstein, Lewis & Clark College
Thomas W. Laqueur, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

The production of history inevitably involves the manipulation of the dead.  Using case studies from France, the United States, and South Africa, this panel explores different ways that the living have used the dead to process difficult legacies of violence, particularly when constructing historical narratives.  In “Skeletons under the Streets” Erin-Marie Legacey examines how early-nineteenth-century Parisians responded to the public display of bones from one of the French Revolution’s most notoriously violent episodes.  She demonstrates how conservatives’ attempts to create an expiatory monument out of these unfortunate remains fell flat among a population that was looking to resolve and move beyond their tumultuous past.  This denial of violence contrasts sharply with how the Transcontinental Railroad companies addressed the violent past of the Overland Trail.  In “Railroad History,” Sarah Keyes highlights how railroad companies used the graves of emigrants, many of whom died violently, to craft a triumphant narrative of the history of westward expansion.  As Keyes explains, promotional materials encouraged railroad travelers during the Gilded Age to compare their current safety with the dangers that emigrants faced a generation earlier.  The historical narrative that Tiffany Jones unearths in “Memory and Reclaiming Ancestors’ Bodies” is decidedly less triumphant, as she details how indigenous African groups struggled throughout the twentieth century to gain control over the remains of their nineteenth-century ancestors, whose remains had been on display in places as far flung as Paris and the Scottish Highlands.  Jones argues that by repatriating their dead, South Africans were forced to confront the injustices of their past and reassess their national history.   Whether they were ignoring recent violence, sensationalizing it, or attempting to come to terms with it generations later, the French, American, and South African populations who appear in these papers all readily acknowledged the vital role that the dead played in this difficult process.

All three papers on this panel also address the importance of location when discussing the dead's ability to represent the past.  Each dead body that appears in this panel was out of place in some way:  on display ninety-feet below the city; in perpetual emigration to the frontier; or nine thousand miles from home.  Although this dislocation could be deeply traumatic, it could also be (re)generative.  Jones argues that South African peoples’ ongoing struggle to relocate and rebury their ancestors became a way to contest the past and represent the birth of a “new” South Africa.  Similarly, Legacey and Keyes demonstrate how the itinerant and semi-anonymous bones along Overland Trail or in the Paris Catacombs turned previously chaotic spaces into powerful sites of regional identity.

Thomas Laqueur, author of The Place of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, 2015), will provide commentary and Andrew Bernstein, author of Modern Passings: Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan (University of Hawaii, 2006) is session chair.

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