The National Council on Public History has recognized James E. Young, distinguished professor emeritus of English and Judaic and Near Eastern studies, with its 2017 Book Award for “The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between,” published last year by the University of Massachusetts Press.
The NCPH Book Award recognizes outstanding scholarship that addresses the theory and/or practice of public history or that includes the products of public history work.
In addition to citing the relevance of this book today, the award committee wrote, “Through Young’s book, readers confront some of the most painful moments in modern history and access new and powerful insights into the excruciating process of public remembrance. For public historians, as well as a wider readership, this book’s insistence that we critically examine and document the processes of contemporary memorialization in time and place provides us all an opportunity to reflect on the continuing physical, psychological, and emotional toll of these tragedies.”
“The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between” examines the complex and contested process of memorialization focusing on the Holocaust, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and Anders Breivik’s mass murders on Norway’s Utøya Island in 2011. Young brings an insider’s perspective to the subject matter, drawing on his service as a member of the commission that oversaw the design competition for Berlin’s Denkmal Holocaust memorial, as a member of the jury for the National September 11 Memorial design competition, and as an adviser to Norway’s July 22 Memorial Research Group.
The book is framed around a difficult and provocative question: in the face of great tragedy and the pressure to memorialize it, “How to articulate a void without filling it in? How to formalize irreparable loss without seeming to repair it?”
Beginning with a discussion of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Young traces the history of “negative-form monuments,” in which empty spaces and multiple, even competing, meanings surface. Young asserts that the contentious local, national, and deeply personal debates on how to memorialize loss should be transparent and somehow incorporated into the memorial itself. As Young writes, “the monument only succeeds insofar as it allows itself full expression of the debates, arguments, and tensions generated in the noisy give and take among competing constituencies driving its very creation.”