March 20, 2016 kb

What exists between memory and history?

Anyone who accesses the digital version of the Library of Congress’ Ellison Papers only has to glance at the search bar to see this.


Perhaps nothing at first glance; maybe on a second look, the archival user might be passingly curious that the finding aid for the Ellison Papers should be hyperlinked to a PDF at

For me, I felt a sharp pain when I happened to glance at the search bar—partially out of surprise, because the link I had typed into Google ( /eadxmlmss/eadpdfmss/2002/ms002008.pdf) had at no point involved me engaging with the word “memory”. In fact, as someone who’s delved into the LOC’s archives and used various finding aids time and again, I’ve become fairly adept at reading finding aid links: ead = Encoded Archival Description; xml= Extensible Markup Language; so on so forth. This plethora of code—both code as we think of it today but also code as a hieroglyph—is what is presented on the front end of approaching the finding aid. It is a structured space of decoding, one filled with information.

But a larger part of my pain is the fact that it is very easy to forget the place of memory in the archive. Which is to say, if memory is bodily and part of the individual, and if history is crafted by governments and societies, then can we look to the archive as one of the first forms of collective memory, a space of resistance against history? And if we can, then what do we make of finding aids, which (in this instance) place memory—both individual and collective—back under the purview of the government?

For this exercise, I am looking at two pieces: Barbara Foley’s “From Communism to Brotherhood: The Drafts of Invisible Man” and J.J.Butts’ “Pattern and Chaos: Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writer’s Project.” Foley explores the ways, “key elements in the hero’s Harlem organizing experience…were reworked in such a way that the text’s initially positive…portrayal of the Red-black relationship devolved into the portrait of Brotherhood perfidy” (165); Butts argues that, ““In Invisible Man, Ellison utilized material from his FWP tenure to critique the foundations of utopian progressive thought, placing in its stead a critical liberalism, one that was anti-utopian and much more cautious in outlook than much postwar liberalism and, most importantly, emphasized local knowledges and claims on justice against broader plans for reform and modernization” (36).

No doubt there’s merit to each of their arguments: after all, they both do the legwork necessary to support their arguments. Foley spends her time looking at the manuscripts left behind by Ellison, comparing passages that were changed/omitted in earlier drafts to the published version that we read today; Butts takes a different approach, looking at correspondence, interviews, and drafts of his edits to The Negro in New York. With the finding aid in the window adjacent to my copies of these essays, it’s easy to see how their very different approaches and very different spaces of knowledge (that is, where they draw their information from, Foley from manuscripts, Butts from seven unique locations in the archive, not to mention the WPA archives he also enters) would support such differing viewpoints. They each aim to add fleshliness to the man, to his work, and the archive (which I have previously described as a type of amputation) is the black market that provides them with bloody approximations of what they desire.

The finding aid, then, is the buyer’s guide. It’s the atlas of the Ralph Ellison and his work in the Ellison Papers archive—but not the atlas of Ellison the man and his work.

I don’t necessarily disagree with either of the author’s claims; in fact, I can see how the archive contributes to the discourse they privilege. But I couldn’t—still can’t—get away from this preoccupation with (collective) memory, the government, and the ways in which scholars, who in effect craft narratives using the archive, might actually be failing to do the recuperative work there’re supposed to do.

Finding aids ostensibly exist to make the life of scholars and academics easier, but the reality is that the finding aid is one of the most obvious examples of governing and the power of Power to remain unseen. The categories produced, the filing system, down to the decision to alphabetize/ list something chronologically—these are all modes of crafting a world system that is easily fixed in place. Looking at the Ellison finding aid, we’re given the following: “Collection Summary”, “Selected Search Terms”; “Administrative Information”; “Biographical Note” and so on. Scholars, like Foley and Butts, enter into their search of Ellison first and foremost through this structured finding aid (or, at least they do if they understand that the finding aid is where “you begin”). But what might have happened if, instead of encountering the finding aid, the encountered the un-archived “stuff” (as Ellison, I think, would call it)? What if they encountered the boxes upon boxes of unenumerated things that was first presented to the LOC? How might the fleshliness of their projects been different? Less fixed in their arguments?

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs (I am) and perhaps I’m missing the point (most probably) but if the work of the scholar is in some ways to uncover what the archive has lost—to recreate a narrative, a collective memory, an (e)x(ray)history—then do we fail when we allow the plethora, these fragments, to be defined by the history-makers?

(Another tangential point: modern day archives mask labor? How do finding aids mask labor? Take the breakdown of all the unique archival materials Butts uses in his essay:

  1. Ellison Interview with Ann Banks | Box 19, Folder 6
  2. Reclassification Notice, John Cody to Ralph Ellison | Box 19, Folder 6
  3. Recommendation Letter from Harry Stack Sullivan | Box 1, Folder 17
  4. Editorial Report on State Copy | Box 21, Folder 1
  5. Chapter Drafts by Ellison (of The Negro in New York manuscript) | Box 21, Folders 1-7
  6. “WPA and the Negro” Promotional Bulletin | Box 19, Folder 7
  7. Roi Ottley to Ralph Ellison | Box 19, Folder 5


Looking at it like this, all we see is the labor of the scholar—at worst, he looked at all these boxes and only these boxes closely; at best, he scanned many more before choosing these seven. But there’s labor involved in organizing these boxes, in making the finding aid, in naming the materials, in digitizing the ephemera…and on and on. In the belly of the beast are automatons cranking out these materials in a readable way. What do we make of this?)

All of this is to say that, regardless of whether one’s sources are disparate and varied (like Butts), or singular and condensed (like Foley) is less the issue; rather, it is the mode through which we approach the archive. (While I recognize it’s simply not feasible to endeavor to do this all the time) we need to approach the archive more like memory and less like history. Butts and Foley enter into it looking for a concretization of their argument—which is not wrong. But it very quickly falls into the trap of (re)producing government “memory” (and here I use government as a stand in for the varying structures that produce and reproduce inequalities and absences in the archive). Rather, we need to enter into it as memory: ephemera that are loosely tied together and craft a narrative but, at the end of the day, are soft, hazy recollections that may or may not be connected. Memory.

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