February 18, 2015

Why memory matters

As one or two of you have noted, this is a blog that is primarily concerned with memory.  Memory of things past and experienced, memory of things read about but never seen, memory that is individual and memory that is shared.  Two recent articles about two completely separate people, told from two different points of view, serve as a perfect illustration of why I write about memory - why memory matters, and ultimately why it's not just nostalgia or a longing for the past.

In his review of a recent biography of Bob Hope, I was taken aback by this description from Terry Teachout of Hope as "the comedian, who died in 2003 at the age of 100 and is now largely forgotten."  Forgotten?  Bob Hope?  You might as well forget about the Academy Awards, the Road pictures, the Golden Age of Radio and USO tours.  Then, of course, I realized that most people have.

I'm not sure I agree with Teachout that Hope has been forgotten, but maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.  After all, people have used the same word to describe Johnny Carson - a man who once was as much of a television institution as anyone could ever hope to be.  True, Hope may not have lived the kind of private life that makes for good biography; Teachout writes that he was "less interesting as a human being than as a performer," a "dull, opaque man who came alive only in front of an audience or a camera."  Those words may seem harsh, but that doesn't make them any less true, if they are.

Nevertheless, were you to randomly query ten people under 30 on the nearest street corner, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that nine had never heard of Bob Hope.  But even if that's true, I will insist that that Hope ought to be remembered, and it is no credit to those who lack the inclination to find out about him.  The reason why is described in this article that has nothing to do with either Hope or television, for that matter.  It's from a piece by Grantland's Charles Pierce, an obituary on the legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith, who suffered from dementia for several years before dying last week:

I know from my own family’s battles with this cruelest of all diseases, a disease that disappears the individual long before it kills the body, that the work of the kindest mercy is to become the memory that the person has lost. It is something atavistic in us, almost visceral, that awareness that the tribe needs to remember — and that the collective memory is always plural. We tell their stories, even to them, even while they are still alive, because we are their surviving memory, because the person already is lost.

The tribe needs to remember.  This is my point exactly, and if Charles Pierce tells it more eloquently than I, at least I'm the one who makes the link between Pierce and Teachout.  The memories from classic movies and television, of their stories and the personalities behind them, need to be remembered.  They are part of our collective memory, our cultural DNA.  The movies and programs we watch today are their progeny - the memories that have replaced those that we've already lost - which makes Bob Hope part of our entertainment family album.

I may have written it here, but if not here than somewhere: man has an insatiable desire to find out where he comes from and who he is.  And this is part of that, our collective memory of our shared history.  For remembering Bob Hope is more than just the memory of the English boy who was born Leslie Townes Hope in 1903.  It's vaudeville and the Golden Age of Radio, before television was a member of the household.  It's World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the first war in the Gulf.  It's Bing Crosby and Jack Benny golf tournaments and "I just want to tell ya" and a thousand other memories from a thousand other entertainers of the past - and the entertainers of today, and those yet even to be born.  It's why, as Charles Pierce suggests, the memories that people create survive long after that person is lost.  Remembering this is key not only to who we are, but what our country is, what our culture is.  What our history is.  If we forget those things, we're sunk.

So Terry Teachout may well be right that Bob Hope is forgotten today.  But if he is, and if Bob Hope is nothing more than a piece of the fog of things past, then we are the ultimate losers.  And it's why this blog - and all the other sites out there devoted to classic television, and other aspects of our history - it's our reason for being.  Because it's all about remembering who we are and where we've come from, and if that isn't something worth remembering, then I don't know what is.

Quote: Dr. Seuss


  1. The "largely forgotten" comment is curious, since even today, just about everyone I know, even those a generation younger, knows who Bob Hope was.

    Of course, the description of Hope as "dull" and "uninteresting" is kinda curious to me, since if Arthur Marx's 1993 bio of Hope is accurate, the man led a rather interesting personal life! :-)

    1. I know. Perhaps I don't hang around with the right people; I have a hard time as well believing that Hope is forgotten, and I always thought he was more interesting than that. But then, maybe the youngest generation really doesn't know much about the past.


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