Who Reproduces Cultural Memory? Who Remembers?

In the Afterword of I Remember, Ron Padgett quotes Michael Lally’s review of the book in The Village Voice (this quote is also featured on the book’s back cover), “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s have universal appeal. He catalogues the past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked” (170). Coincidentally, I read Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World right before reading I Remember, and Salesses discusses how fiction, specifically how fiction is workshopped and by whom fiction is workshopped influences the reproduction and transmission of cultural norms. After finishing I Remember, I saw a post from the Instagram account @impact called “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s,” which pointed out that these were times of oppression for women and people of color, particularly black Americans. All of these texts coming together immediately raised red flags at the notion that I Remember could have “universal appeal” given the period Lally identifies as his and Brainard’s youth. For white men like Lally and Brainard, their experiences of childhood in the 1940s and 1950s would be drastically different than those of children of color in the United States experiencing the social turbulence of World War II and its ripple effects, including but not limited to Japanese internment, lack of federal funding for services on Indian reservations, the Zoot Suit riots, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In the text, Brainard periodically makes unflattering remarks about “Negroes” and “Orientals” which consistently snapped me out of whatever rhythm I fell into while reading. Early in the book, I was shocked by, “I remember my father in black-face. As an end man in a minstrel show” (33). It is one thing to internalize racist ideas that are insidiously embedded in American culture and to reproduce it (perhaps unknowingly), but it is another to remember – and in the words of its collaborators and initial reviewers, I Remember is an honest accounting of Brainard’s memory – how one’s father actively participated in the reproduction and transmission of racist ideas. Later, I was again more shocked by, “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly” (Brainard 133). While the point of the book is not to reflect on the memories and to critique or address the writer’s upbringing or challenge the beliefs of the younger self, I have found through browsing casual book reviews that the focus is largely on the craft of I Remember, and not the content of the remembrances so neither the writer nor the reader is engaging in the work of examining exactly what kinds of things Brainard remembers and why it’s these memories that he chose to immortalize in published writing.

Thinking of Salesses and the way homogenous groups of writers continue to perpetuate the same cultural ideas in fiction until it is the norm, I really have to question Lally’s claim of I Remember’s “universal appeal,” that goes unchallenged even in Padgett’s 2001 Afterword, and if what Lally really means to say is that the book’s appeal is for white readers only. I think the craft of the book distracts readers from questioning what kinds of cultural memories are reproduced within, and that this book too contributes to the rosy view of American history that obscures the truth and prevents white Americans from coming to terms with the reality of America. When the people doing the remembering and immortalizing the remembrances are not remembering the realities of prejudice and oppression, they are producing cultural memory that continues to obscure the truth of history.


Works Cited

Brainard, Joe. I Remember. 1975. Granary Books, 2001.

Impact. “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s.” Instagram, designed by Tania Velin, 14 October 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CVBVgW6B1NU/.

Padgett, Ron. Afterword. I Remember, by Joe Brainard, 2001, pp. 169-176.

Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World. Catapult, 2021.