Wednesday, 4 November 2015

‘Anne Frank? […] It’s funny’: Remembering the Holocaust in the Twenty-First Century in Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (2012) and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (2012)

The 2015-2016 American Studies Seminar Series began at the Andrew Hook Centre with a thought-provoking presentation from Dr Rachael McLennan of the University of East Anglia.  Dr McLennan focussed on the novel, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” to explore how Anne Frank and the Holocaust are represented in 21st century American fiction.  Dr McLennan suggested humour may have an important place in how we consider both Anne Frank and the Holocaust, reflecting that Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer dealt with both topics irreverently.  However, rather than being disrespectful, irreverence was used to challenge readers’ views and assumptions.

Through her discussion of Auslander and Englander’s work, Dr McLennan highlighted the ways in which both authors challenge traditionally held views of Anne Frank as a saintly figure who must be protected from impiety and criticism.  Through deploying the use of humour, the authors remove the protective aura surrounding popular ideas of Anne Frank, thus enabling readers to identify a wider frame of reference.  In ‘Teaching Anne Frank in the United States’, Ilana Abramovich suggests popular perceptions of Anne Frank can actually prevent people properly understanding the full-blown horror of the Holocaust because they identify with her to such a great extent.[1]  Perhaps Auslander and Englander’s approach is not unlike that of Anne Frank’s own approach in her diary.  In ‘Critical Thinking: Scholars Reread the Diary’, Sally Charnow points out that Anne Frank critiqued her own parents and their generation in her diary.  This enabled her to find her own voice, free from familial and cultural expectations.[2]  Authors such as Auslander and Englander use their creativity to keep Anne Frank and the Holocaust in the public consciousness while challenging widely accepted perceptions.  This in turn prompts readers to actively think, rather than only passively accept.

Dr McLennan also discussed the work of Michael Rothberg who advocates ‘multidirectional memory’.  Rothberg argues that collective memory, the way in which social groups establish a link between the past and present, is complex in multi-cultural societies.  He believes memory becomes ‘competitive’, creating a ‘logic of scarcity’ in which groups contest who has been the most victimised, leading to a ‘hierarchy of suffering’, and notions of deserving and undeserving groups.[3]  Rothberg advocates the use of ‘multidirectional memory’ as a more productive way forward.  By acknowledging all atrocities, each group can support the other to highlight concerns about what happened in the past, but also what is still happening in the present.  He stresses the importance of observing the narratives which influence how atrocities are remembered as well as the facts.  Rather than focussing on the Holocaust to demonstrate we remember the past, we should remember it in conjunction with current events which pose challenges to our identity.  Rothberg’s views again highlight the active nature of remembering and that it carries responsibilities if we wish to be agents of change.

Dr McLennan concluded by observing that the work of authors such as Auslander and Englander demonstrate the need to find symbols of the Holocaust in 21st century America, particularly when many survivors are dying.  This raises the question of whether Anne Frank is being used as a signifier but, in reality, how can one person be all things to all people?  Has the exceptionalism which has arisen around Anne Frank obscured the real Anne Frank?  Have popular perceptions of the Holocaust as the ultimate human tragedy ‘downgraded’ other atrocities and ironically provided us with a ‘comfortable’ signifier for human suffering on a scale which we cannot truly face?  There are also wider questions about how American Jews identify themselves within America.  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Shandler believe that Anne Frank’s life and work will soon “depend entirely on mediations” because anyone who remembered her, the Holocaust or World War II will soon have died.  No doubt future authors and scholars will continue to challenge how we remember Anne Frank and the Holocaust.  Dr McLennan’s discussion highlighted the importance of remembrance as an activity with which we engage, rather than passively accept.

Valerie MacKenzie
PGR – University of Glasgow

The next lecture in the Andrew Hook Centre lecture and seminar series, which will be given by Dr. Barbara Hahn (Texas Tech University and University of Leeds) is entitled: “The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and Orleans” This will take place at 5.15pm on Wednesday 11th November 2015, and will be held in Room 208, 2 University Gardens. All very welcome!

[1] Ilana Abramovich, ‘Teaching Anne Frank in the United States’ in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Sanders (eds), Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)
[2] Sally Charnow, ‘ Critical Thinking: Scholars Reread the Diary’ in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Sanders (eds), Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)
[3] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonisation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

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