Matthew Dennis spoke at the Brown Bag Lunch series on Tuesday, April 12, 2016, from 12–1:30 pm. His talk was entitled “Dangerous Relic: ‘The Bloody Shirt’; A Material History of an American Trope.”

Matthew Dennis is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, and will be a visiting fellow at Bard Graduate Center (April–June 2016). His books include Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in 17th-Century America (1993), Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (2002), Riot and Revelry in Early America (co-editor, 2002), Encyclopedia of Holidays and Celebrations, 3 volumes (editor, 2006), and Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic (2010). His essays, both popular and scholarly, have assayed a range of subjects as material as Plymouth Rock and as ephemeral as dreams and visions, as celebratory as American holidays and festivals and as dire as death and mortal remains. His current book project is American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory.

Robert Frost’s poem “The Flood,” like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, invokes the old English adage: “blood will out.” “But power of blood itself releases blood,” Frost writes. “It will have an outlet, brave and not so brave… . Oh, blood will out. It cannot be contained.”

In this talk, Dennis examined the power of blood preserved as relics in blood-soaked souvenir garments in American public memory. Bloody shirts (or coats, shrouds, or handkerchiefs) can “speak” beyond the graves of those whose blood they salvaged. Instead of cleansing stains or discarding blood-soiled clothes, some sought to preserve and deploy them to provoke memory—particular, purposeful remembrance—and to inspire action. Blood relics could arrest attention, shape identity, link Americans directly with dead heroes and martyrs, and inspire passion for the causes with which they might be linked. Thus, the “power of blood” could indeed release blood—nonviolent political passions, or sometimes new bloodletting, in causes “brave and not so brave,” noble or reprehensible or ambiguous.