Reclaiming Memory: Literature, Science, and the Rise of Memory as Property, 1860-1945
Covington, Elizabeth Reeves
This project explores the relationship of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature to the experimental sciences of memory. Many critics have demonstrated the effect of psychoanalysis on literary thought, but early experimental psychology—and specifically findings related to human memory—is an unexplored field in literary studies. After 1860, researchers in the burgeoning field of experimental psychology began to investigate the ways that memory works and proposed theories indicating that recall of past experience is fragile, vulnerable to suggestion and alteration, and liable to be forgotten. The dissertation demonstrates the ways that late Victorian and modernist literature was particularly resistant to contentions that memory is unstable and changeable, clinging instead to the Lockean theory of personal identity based on persistent and stable memories over time. Drawing on texts from the late-Victorian writer Samuel Butler, and modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and T.S. Eliot, the dissertation describes literary memory models that are secure and unchanging. These writers discuss memories in terms that suggest that memory is the property of the rememberer, thus extending the protections of personal property to those of memory. Further, authors during this period increasingly incorporated their own memories into fictional work, a move that amounts to the literal propertization of memory. This study demonstrates that late Victorian and modernist literature provides a competing account of memory function that contradicts the findings of the experimental memory sciences.