Lillian Smith’s One Hour (1959) is a complex novel that examines a myriad of societal and existential questions from the influence of racism and patriarchy on one’s psyche to the ways we remember and think about death. The novel centers around what Smith calls a “minor plot.” David Landrum, the Episcopal Priest at All Saints Church in the town, narrates the story, writing about the events, from memory, two years after they occurred. He tells us about Susan, an eight-year old girl who accuses Dr. Mark Channing, a respected member of the community and a cancer researcher, or assaulting her in an abandoned store. The narrative details the ways that rumors and deep seated fears lead to the spread of disinformation and mob violence. Throughout, David also struggles within himself to determine whether or not Mark assaulted Susan. For David, he works to construct an image of Mark and works to make that image fit within his friendship with Mark, denying the mass hysteria around him. Ultimately, though David confesses he never really knew Mark, or anyone for that matter.
The entirety of One Hour hinges on memory, the memory of events and the memory of individuals. The novel, in and of itself, is an act of memory and the construction of the events that took place two years before David writes them down. David acts, through the retelling of events, to maintain the images of individuals within the story. He uses memory to place upon them identities that are based on his own experiences with them. Most of these identities shift and change over the course of the novel, but the main thing is that he, along with other characters, uses memory to keep people who have died alive. This happens because David remembers people like Charlie, the choir director who gets murdered at the end of the novel.
One Hour concludes with David ruminating on Charlie’s death but also on Charlie’s continued existence through memory. David writes, “I am not sure what is ahead: or where the next hour lies: except I know it is hidden somewhere in this one, among quiet and noisy and uncounted possibilities. And we, the living, will find it or fail to, as we continue to shape this small piece of time we call our own.” We shape our existence around memory, the memories and stories we tell ourselves. Those stories live alongside us, and they bring the dead back to life as we “shape this small piece of time we call our own.”
Ram V and Anand Rk’s Blue In Green deals with similar themes through Erik Dieter’s memories and his exploration of his mother and his grandfather’s past. In the graphic novel, Erik returns home to bury his mother, whom he was never really close to. While there, he starts to search for information about her, and he discovers her connection to a jazz musician, Dalton Blakley. An entity torments Dalton, causing him to create his music, and to protect the world, Dalton burns himself alive. That same entity torments Erik, and memory lies at the heart of this torment.
At Alana’s funeral, Erik thinks about the ways we remember those who have died. In a three panel sequence, we see Erik falling through space, his saxophone above him, and in the next two panels, closeups of snowflakes falling to the ground. Erik narrates, “I imagine falling through the sky. I am reminded of the fragility of all things. All of us, falling through like like heavy snowflakes. I wonder how many will disappear even before they hit the ground. From mist to mist, a life unremembered.” Erik contemplates legacy and memory in these panels, specifically he wonders what causes us to remember some individuals and not others. The others, as he notes, fall to the ground and dissolve, lost forever to memory.
After he finds a photograph of Dalton among Alana’s belongings, Erik pays a visit to Ollie, the manager of Becker’s, a local jazz club, because Erik thinks that Ollie may be able to provide a lead on the man in the photograph. After Ollie provides Erik with information about where to find out who the man in the photograph may be, Erik tells him that he loved Alana, in his own way, and he stresses their difficulty of their relationship. Ollie takes a drink and tells Erik, “It’s none of my business, Erik, but the dead don’t become ghosts until we start looking for them, son.”
Ollie echoes Lillian Smith who said, “But there is one kind of immortality that we can understand and take comfort in . . . and that is the fact that the human memory can hold on to a relationship after the person with whom it was formed is dead.” The ghosts, in this case Alana and Dalton, become ghosts through Erik’s active search to learn more about them. Physically, they do not exist, but through his digging, Erik reconstructs them, albeit through his own lens. They continue to exist in a manner of speaking.
In this way, Ollie encapsulates the fact that the living maintain an individual’s existence, thus causing the individual to live on into the future, impacting it. Erik’s discoveries lead him to revive Dalton and Alana; however, what happens if Erik does not share their stories with others? If he doesn’t share their stories they cease to exist within the memories of the living, and thus they cease to exist at all. They are not ghosts walking the physical realm. They are nothing. Yet, when someone begins looking again, at old photos or newspaper clippings, they reappear, moving across the physical realm among us, walking beside us. They become real again.
Lillian Smith’s headstone contains a quote from he book The Journey (1954). It reads, “Death can kill a man, that is all it can to him. It cannot end his life, because of memory.” The physical may cease to exist, and that is death. Yet, the life carries on through memory. The life change and shifts depending on the stories we tell, but it lives. It breathes. It stands alongside us.
Next post I’ll explore this topic some more by finishing my look at Blue in Green. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.