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November 14, 2013

Memory historian on JFK: 'I remember where I was when …'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — No memorial can reflect the significance of President John Kennedy's assassination than the resounding "I remember where I was …" that is so often quoted by those old enough to remember, says a Purdue University historian.

"Memories of one generation shape how subsequent generations think about an event," says Caroline E. Janney, an associate professor of history who studies American history, memory and memorials. "For example, my mom has long told me about sitting in band class when she first heard the news. I often bring the image of her in band class to mind when I think about the event although it has nothing to do with the event itself. I think of the shock and grief a teenager and nation must have felt."

Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. Because of modern broadcasting programming in 1963, people learned of his death quickly from television and radio reports.

"Up to that point, people learned of big news days later, but technology changed that and certainly played a role in the significance of how people remembered this moment," Janney says. "A nation heard the news simultaneously emphasizing the event as an American moment."

Janney also says there are likely psychological reasons to explain why and what people remember, but from a historian's perspective, people hold onto memories when it gives them an individual connection to an historically significant event.

That connection is a powerful feeling that the children of these adults often recall with great detail. It will be interesting to see if their children at the 75th and 100th anniversaries will share the older generations' memories, Janney says.

"Memories change over time because experiences, politics and events shape them," she says. "We've seen that throughout history from the Civil War to 9/11, but what is exceptional about this American moment is what has been passed on to younger generations. Decades from now people may look back on Kennedy more critically and say he should have been more involved in the civil rights movement, but even so, I think people will still be in awe because of the Camelot mystique, his youth and charisma, and how the older generations reflect on his presidency."

Janney is the author of "Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause" and "Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation." She also is the president-elect for the Society of Civil War Historians.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Caroline E. Janney, cjanney@purdue.edu 

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