U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History, Memory, and Daniel Mendelsohn’s THE LOST

I was going to blog about something quite different today, but I ended up spending most of the day absorbed in a book: The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2006 account of his search for the fate of six of his relatives who died in the Holocaust.  I was about two-hundred-pages away from finishing it this morning, and I just couldn’t put it down to do anything else until I was done. I’m teaching The Lost, for the first time, in my colloquium on the history and memory of World War II since 1945 this coming semester. And the great pleasure I took in reading Mendelsohn’s book makes me doubly embarrassed not only that I have never taught it before, but also that I had never even read it before.

The last time I taught this course, The Lost had just come out. And, while I considered adding it to my unit on the Holocaust, I ultimately didn’t, because I feared both that, at roughly 650 pages, it was too long, and that it would overlap too much with Maus, Art Spiegelman’s path-breaking graphic novel about his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor, which has long been one of the staples of this course.  Both books concern a Jewish-American author’s attempt to understand his family’s relationship to the Holocaust. Both mix telling stories of the author’s family’s experience in World War II Poland with meditations on the process of such storytelling and explorations of a Jewish-American family’s later relationship to the Holocaust.

Why I had not read The Lost earlier, however, is more mysterious to me. I was certainly aware of it at the time of its publication. It concerns a series of historical and (in a broad sense) historiographical issues that are of great interest to me.  It received wonderful reviews. And I have long valued Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing and criticism.[1] But perhaps the greatest source of my embarrassment at not having read the book before is that Daniel Mendelsohn went to graduate school with me. He was in Classics; I was in History.  I knew him pretty well: he was a close friend of many close friends of mine. And in a place full of smart people, he always struck me as having a particularly distinctive and interesting mind. So, in addition to all the other reasons that I might have read his book, his story also had a kind of personal interest to me.

Having now finished The Lost, I am completely looking forward to teaching it in a few weeks. In fact, it will be a wonderful complement to Maus.  Though Mendelsohn’s book bears many resemblances to Spiegelman’s graphic novel, its differences from it are also significant. Born in 1948, Art Spiegelman is a dozen years older, and a generation closer, to the Holocaust than is Mendelsohn. Spiegelman’s book is about a father who survived the Holocaust; Mendelsohn’s book is about a great uncle and aunt, and their four daughters, who perished during it.  All of these differences are significant…and will provide important points of comparison in the context of a course like mine.  In addition, while Spiegelman’s book raises interesting questions about the process of discovering the past and representing it, Mendelsohn’s book explores these issues in greater detail, raising particularly interesting questions about the relationship between history and memory, which is one of the central issues of my course.  While Maus reflects –- and presents — a kind of extended conversation between its author and its (main) subject, the author’s father, The Lost is constructed around a long series of conversations between its author and a wide variety of people, including some family members, but also a wide array of other survivors from Bolechow, the then-Polish shtetl in which its six main subjects lived (which is now the town of Bolechiv in Ukraine), all of whom had some connection to the book’s subjects (Mendelsohn’s six relatives), who all died before Mendelsohn was even born.

But from a teaching perspective, one of the most important things about The Lost is a quality it shares with Maus: it is a page-turner, which is never a bad thing when one asks a class of students to read a book.

Having spent most of the day on The Lost, I don’t have the time to reflect at length on what Mendelsohn has to say about doing history. But finishing made me want to ask readers of this blog what books you have used to make undergraduates reflect on the process of doing history.

[1] For example, his review of Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones in the March 29, 2009, issue of the New York Review of Books (available behind a paywall here) is truly a great piece of literary criticism. Littell’s book deeply divided critics. I had read, and largely admired, it, yet I found it problematic in a variety of ways that I had a difficult time putting my finger on.  Mendelsohn’s elegantly written, admiring, but critical, review, provided a fascinating, convincing reading of the novel that helped me better understand my own reaction to it.  You really cannot ask for more from a book review.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ben: Not having read either The Lost or Maus, I don’t have anything substantive to say about your post. But I do want to say thank you for the reflections. I now want to read at least one of these two books of which I wasn’t aware before learning about them here. – TL

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