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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Place and Memory

Ghosts of Fire Island

Neighbors of ours whose child is a good friend of our older son invited us out to their home in Fire Island — for me as much a trip into the past as the present. I have come here at many times in my life, from when I was perhaps 6, through early teenage, to college and adulthood. So from the moment that we neared the ferry (you have to take a ferry from Bay Shore in Long Island to reach Fire Island) I kept seeing the present through the scrim of the past — or, it would be just as true to say, my many past trips here began to assert themsemselves in my memory so strongly that I was driving as much through what I had experienced as what I was seeing directly in front of me.

Have you had that experience — revisiting a place that brings back so many intense memories that they seem to thicken the air, you feel you are touching, re-entering, that past even as you experience the present? For some people, of course, there are sites that have that power — concentration camps, slave depots, the locations of battles, murders, or massacres. But there few of the people having that instense experience of past coloring the present actually experienced that past themselves. Visitors feel the weight of what took place there (precisely what Lincoln invoked in the Gettysburg Address), but they are not reentering their own past. When it is your own life layers crisscross layers — because you have had the past-present experience other times, when you came back as an adult. So even the layering itself is layered. The place is thick with memory.

This experience of the palpable past is what National Parks and museums seek to create. I wonder if we need to make more use of that cross of place and memory with our students — so the past has a location, it is not just words and images, not just names and dates — it has specific location, and as we see them, we should be able to put on those glasses — to see what is in front of us with past-colored-glasses, seeing not just what it is but what it was. That is a kind of receptivity/awareness of place that we should work to develop in young people — beginning, perhaps, with the places in their own lives.


  1. Elizabeth Partridge says:

    another way to experience the palpable past in favorite books is Google Lit Trips. This comment section won’t allow me to paste in a url, so do a search and check it out. a recent edition is Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Students learn the basics of Google Earth, and then can fly from place to place in the book, seeing images and learning info. Very cool.

  2. a great post, marc. it must be even more so for you walking through manhattan, as a born-and-raised-in person.

  3. thanks — Betsy for the lead, will follow up, and SDN for the nice thought. I am not sure why Fire Island had that particularly dense accretion of memory — maybe summer places are like that — you did not live there all the time, but in key beats — you had to get reaquainted each time; you were always familiar with the place and arriving anew.

  4. elizabeth partridge says:

    Actually, Laurie Halse Anderson’s book on is for Fever 1793, not Chains.

  5. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I love the idea of memory thickening the air. Thank you for the evocative piece!

  6. thanks