The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Fred D’Aguiar's The Longest Memory. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Fred D’Aguiar

Fred D’Aguiar was born in London in 1960 to recent Guyanese immigrants, but around the age of two, he was sent back to live with his grandmother and his extended family. He then moved back to London at the age of twelve. As a teenager, D’Aguiar published poetry in local newspapers and became strongly influenced by the atmosphere of racial tension in London during the 1970s. This led him to become politically engaged in his writing, which often focuses on racism and the legacy of slavery. After training to be a psychiatric nurse, he graduated in African and Caribbean studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury, in southern England. He published his first book of poetry, Mama Dot (named after his grandmother), in 1985, the same year as his graduation. The success of this first book established D’Aguiar’s reputation as an influential young poet capable of expanding the scope of British literature in the 1980s and 1990s. During the next few years, he wrote successful poetry and plays, focusing on multiculturalism, Afro-Caribbean traditions, and the legacy of slavery. D’Aguiar published his first novel, The Longest Memory, in 1994, which depicts slavery in the United States, and won two prestigious prizes. A prolific writer, D’Aguiar wrote a play, four more novels, two narrative poems, and two collections of poetry in the two decades that followed. D’Aguiar has taught at various universities, including the University of Cambridge, Amherst College, and the University of Miami. He is currently a Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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Historical Context of The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory is set from 1790 to 1810, during a period in which Northern states gradually abolished slavery (from 1777 to 1804). This period saw an economic and ideological gap grow between the increasingly industrialized North and the South, whose economy was based on agriculture (such as the production of cotton, sugar cane, or tobacco), which largely depended on slave labor. In the North, the antislavery and abolitionist movements sought to eliminate slavery in the entire country. While the abolitionists (a minority group) sought to abolish slavery and racism right away, antislavery advocates (who included famous figures such as President Abraham Lincoln) argued for the gradual ending of slavery and did not necessarily eschew racist ideas entirely. Meanwhile, a Protestant movement called the Second Great Awakening renewed the public’s interest in morality and sin, strengthening the Abolitionist Movement’s claims that slavery was immoral, in contrast with those who believed that Christianity and slavery were not incompatible. The deep economic and political tensions between the North and the South led, decades later, to the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Other Books Related to The Longest Memory

Although The Longest Memory is a fictional account of slavery in Virginia, written two hundred years after the events it relates, it builds on a tradition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century autobiographical slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave (1855). The slave narrative genre influenced the entire tradition of African-American autobiographical writing, often concerned with the legacy of racism and discrimination, whose major twentieth-century figures include Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou. The Longest Memory also builds on the literary legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Despite Uncle Tom's Cabin's tendency to reinforce certain racial stereotypes, the novel played an important role in bolstering the abolitionist movement, as it explored themes of racism, Christianity, and empathy, and made slaves’ plights vivid to readers across the country.
Key Facts about The Longest Memory
  • Full Title: The Longest Memory
  • When Written: 1994
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1994
  • Literary Period: Post-Modernism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Mr. Whitechapel’s plantation in Virginia
  • Climax: Chapel’s death
  • Antagonist: Although authority figures such as Mr. Whitechapel, Sanders Senior, and Sanders Junior can be cruel and prove more interested in defending their own interests than protecting the slaves, the entire system of slavery proves to be the true antagonist in the story, as it is capable of leading even seemingly well-intentioned characters to acts of oppression and violence.
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Longest Memory

Tragedy and Progress. Despite his frequent focus on tragic occurrences (such as, in The Longest Memory, the brutal death of a hopeful young boy), D’Aguiar believes that even the most terrifying historical events carry positive lessons, capable of making society a better place. In an interview, he explains how disaster can be the catalyst for spiritual transformation: “there are these formative moments of history tied around tragedy and disaster and sacrifice, that led people to survive and take stock and move on with some kind of notion of betterment. […] And then there’s a moment to remember those who died or sacrificed for us to carry on.”