Friday, September 20, 2013

Karen M. Dunak

Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She earned her BA in History at American University and her PhD in Modern US History at Indiana University.

Dunak's new book is As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Dunak's reply:
When anyone would gossip or speculate about the romantic lives of other couples, my grandfather used to say “Other people’s marriages are a foreign country.” And he would complete his thought by adding “And I don’t speak the language.” Earlier in the summer, I was reading a back issue of a magazine in my doctor’s office and stumbled upon an article that quoted L. P. Hartley’s famous opening sentence of The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Reminding me of my grandfather’s words, the passage inspired me to order and read Hartley’s book.

Both considerations of “foreign countries” suggest that there are things that are unknowable in the world, and more specifically, there are things unknowable about the lives and motivations of others. As a historian, I study and aim to understand the past while attempting to withhold judgment and appreciate the differences I find there. But my investigations are of a past from which I am at least somewhat separate. Hartley’s book, wrapped up as it is in memory, gives consideration to a man’s relationship to his personal past. Views of events and experiences, he suggests, evolve as they are revisited with the perspective age can bring.

In The Go-Between, an elderly Leo Colston revisits the summer of 1900 – memories of which he had long repressed – when he finds and reads a diary he kept that year. That summer, when he turned thirteen, Colston served as a messenger, or go-between, for a class-crossed couple conducting a clandestine love affair that ultimately ended in disaster. He struggles to come to grips with his adolescent impressions and actions and considers how this one summer influenced subsequent relationships conducted and decisions made throughout his life. As an old man, when he reconsiders his actions from an aged perspective and revisits the town in which he summered that year, he sees how other participants during that fateful summer viewed the same events through very different lenses – both then and as time had gone by. Their tellings of this same story, undoubtedly, would have been very different.

While The Go-Between is wrapped up also in issues of class and tradition and is shaped by the reader’s knowledge of the change that transpired across the first half of the highly anticipated twentieth century, I loved this book most for its consideration of time and perspective. I also loved thinking about how views of our younger selves can give us pause or can make us uncomfortable with who we were and what we thought – and how sometimes we’re inclined to be more forgiving of others than we are of our former selves.
Learn more about Karen Dunak's As Long as We Both Shall Love at the New York University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: As Long as We Both Shall Love.

--Marshal Zeringue