The Past Is Never Dead–Is It?

The title of my new book seems suddenly to have become quite popular. Frances Ford Coppola recently used it in describing one of his movies and, of course, Obama used it in his speech on race. Google Alerts show it being used frequently by writers and artists to describe a wide range of attitudes and emotions. The complete phrase of is: The Past Is Never Dead. It’s not even past. If you really think about that notion, it’s quite discouraging. It says that not even is the past never dead, it’s not even past. This means, literally, that the past is still the present, which really means that there really is no present, not if the past never leaves it. It’s true that for many people and cultures the past dominates the present–and definesthe future to a large degree, or at least the experience of the future–but to say that there is no room for the present is seriously misanthropic and depressing. I don’t think this is a mere word game, either, but I think it goes a good deal further than most people think when they quote the phrase. Usually it’s quoted to mean you have to keep paying for your past, that you never get away from it, which is good less frightening than the notion that it fills, in fact constitutes, the present.

The phrase was used in regard to a woman in Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” who was trying to forget or overcome her past life, which involved murder and prostitution. It is Faulkner’s most memorable phrase, and there was a good deal of debate in the publishing house about whether a sentence made a good title. Finally, it was agreed that it best captured the theme of Mississippi’s effort at redemption from its past. ┬áLet’s hope that its literal meaning isn’t true for Mississippi or for us.

5 thoughts on “The Past Is Never Dead–Is It?

  1. It is an interesting topic Harry, even if you look at Ken Rex, the past of what happened is still not dead – not in Kc, not in Des Moines and certainly not in Skidmore to the dismay of its residents.

  2. I used to suggest half jokingly to friends and residents in Skidmore that they have a reenactment of the shooting every July. I’ve come to believe it might be the only way the town comes to grips with it — to move the killing into a place in history.

  3. I just discovered your work while perusing Mississippi books on Looks like I need to get reading! Your studies sound fascinating. I love social histories that center around legal trials, especially when they’re written by lawyers who know how to write AND know the law!

    Vikki Bynum

  4. Thanks for the comment. Writing about the law so it is accurate and also understandable for the non-lawyer is sometimes a great challenge.

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