Nate DiMeo tells history like you’ve never heard it before. On his podcast The Memory Palace, DiMeo tells history in stories that are touching, revealing, emotional, and small. Really small. One of them is fifty words long. Most pieces are around ten minutes, and DiMeo tries to pare down historical narratives to their emotional core. He never wants his listeners to forget that history is about real people. He tends not to focus on the well-known historical actors and shies away from telling stories about “representative” figures as well. The Memory Palace is populated with circus freaks, zombies, eccentrics, and cross-dressing ex-slaves. It’s a collection of stories absent from mainstream history writing but compelling nonetheless.
But DiMeo’s content is not his only departure from traditional history writing. Each moment in every episode is lovingly crafted with an attention to detail that is extremely rare in podcasts, a genre more inclined towards free-wheeling conversation than intricate detail. The stories are told in a style that is at once conversational and detached, emotionally engaged and intellectually objective. They live up to the series’ title; they feel more like memories than histories.
The Memory Palace can be found at thememorypalace.us or on iTunes. A good entry into the program is Episode 0, “The Re-Up,” which is a rebroadcast of some of the most popular stories from the first several years of the program.
In the following interview, Nate DiMeo talks about narrative, Sarah Vowell, and the bizarre realization that George Washington was a real dude.
Andy Boyd, U.S. History Scene (AB): In the latest episode (Episode 54, “Origin Stories”), you talk about the family stories that led you to do research about your grandfather’s nightclub. What do you see as the relationship between history and memory?
Nate DiMeo, The Memory Palace (ND): Well, I think it’s right at the heart of it. I think that memory and history are nearly synonymous. The reason I was initially interested in telling history stories and in doing a podcast was because I have this core belief that filters through my work but also just through my life in general that we are the stories we tell. Our identity, on almost a biological level, is us as an organism trying to make sense of the world by ordering and processing our memory. It’s about creating a narrative about our lives and where we are in our development and how we might respond to any stimulus by what’s come before. Our identity is wrapped up in this constant storytelling process. I do believe that that’s sort of the way our brain works, the way we walk around in the world. History to me is that process writ large. It’s us as a society, as a culture, as groups of people trying at some level to agree on the story of our own collective past. To me, history is memory.
AB: You were talking a little about wanting to do history in a different way. Your stories are often very small, very intimate. Why did you decide to write them this way? Is that related to your belief that the process of making history is identical to the process of making everyday narrative?
ND: Probably. It originally started as a little bit of a practical concern. The Memory Palace started about four or five years ago out of a drive to create a proper weekly hour-long public radio program. I spent a lot of time in public radio and was working as an editor and a reporter for the public radio show Marketplace for American Public Media, and I spoke to the people there about developing a history show. The original intention of the podcast was to develop and road test segment types, different ways to tell stories, different things that I could eventually do on an hour-long history program. On the one hand, those segments needed to be small and short because they needed to fit within an hour-long program. I also had this belief that particularly in public radio there had not been a history program because frankly a lot of the people that want to do history on public radio are historians. Historians, to their great credit, want to tell things long because without length and without depth there isn’t proper context, or they don’t have proper evidence, etcetera.
I came to the idea of telling history stories only because of interesting stories and interesting people. I have always been drawn to the past and to thinking about memory. I really liked the idea of trying to find ways to tell these engaging stories and try to get them down to their essence. How much context was enough to make sure this story landed, had impact, and had emotional power? Exactly how briefly could I handle a story? As I began to do those pieces and it became clear that maybe this wasn’t leading towards an hour-long show. I really enjoyed making them, though. I really got into the process of trying to figure out how small these things can get, how to move the audience in a way that I may have once been moved by first encountering that information or hearing that story in some other context. Finding the arc of telling those stories became an art in itself.
AB: Could you talk a little bit more about the process by which you find these stories?
ND: I’m not a historian. In a lot of ways I’m not really a history buff, which I know is sort of counter-intuitive but I’m sort of culturally omnivorous. I’ve always enjoyed going to museums and I’ve always enjoyed a good historic home tour. Often times I encounter historical information through documentaries and through novels. I’m 39 now and in my twenties there was a stretch where I really was kind of in a big history kick and reading a lot of American history stuff and particularly American art history and a lot of times I just remember these moments where I was blown away by some fact. I remember not incredibly long ago reading a three-volume history of the Civil War and in this book there was basically a throwaway paragraph where the author was talking about different incidences of slaves who escaped to freedom [James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom]. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, many of these slaves either were caught and returned or there was some conflict about that.
In the midst of these examples was the story of the Crafts, which is episode 14 of the Memory Palace. Mrs. Craft escaped to freedom by pretending to be a white man, and her husband acted as her slave. [In Battle Cry of Freedom] It was just a sort of throwaway line and it just completely blew me away. I went from there and learned more about it. I start with these little facts that one might tell at a cocktail party and then I go off and research. In a lot of ways the whole process of creating the story and figuring out what an episode of The Memory Palace will be is really trying to take that instinct or that feeling of a thing that moved me once, and trying to transmute that to an audience. How can I recontextualize it, how can I connect, how can I create something that gets someone to that feeling in a much shorter time?
AB: I totally identify with that feeling. I read a biography of Roger Williams and the thing I most took away from it was that birds were so common in early New England that the Puritans would catch them by stretching nets between trees.
ND: That’s the exact sort of thing that interests me. There could be a program or a podcast that’s just, let’s sit down with this historian who just wrote the five volume history of cheese or whatever and ask him or her “if you just get me in the airport and really want to hook me, give me the three best things about cheese.” Taken in the aggregate, those little anecdotes aren’t reductive, and there’s nothing that chips away from the power of the larger work in those anecdotes. In a lot of ways those anecdotes add up to a particular historical understanding that has always been, to me, wonderful. That’s where the wonder of history comes in. It’s not in the specifics, it is in the aggregation of these anecdotes, these little moments of wonder or surprise.
AB: One thing I’ve noticed about your podcast is that the majority of the stories are American history. Is there something other than the fact that you’re an American that draws you to American history?
ND: Not really. It’s partly pragmatic. I know that my audience is for the most part American. But a lot of it is that I understand the sort of shorthand of American history. I can easily understand on some level who Roger Williams was and the early settlers of Providence Plantations were when they were catching those birds. I think that matters as a storyteller.
AB: That makes sense.
ND: Otherwise you’re just a tourist, I think. You’re just pulling the most interesting facts from some wacky other culture. I’ve always felt a kinship with Sarah Vowell, who’s also a public radio person. She shares this sort of frankness. I always appreciate reading her because I feel like she’s been caught by surprise by how much she loves certain things, and to follow her along that journey is always really powerful. I always feel like she’s really trying to figure out what’s going on. So many historians, rightly, tell you how it was. I think there’s something that’s attractive but also important in bringing in the lay reader. The question of the quest that she’s trying to answer is at the heart of the story she’s telling. That helps the process of making it engaging.
AB: Are there any things about this way of telling history that can be useful for history educators?
ND: I definitely get a fair amount of e-mails from teachers. One of the classes of e-mail that I get that is always most satisfying is when some eighth grade teacher e-mails saying “I’ve been looking for things to get my kids excited about this unit about the Civil War and they hate it and then I played them your podcast, and now they’re really excited.” But I think that over and over and over again as proved by things like the best America Experience documentaries is that these are stories about people. I think that’s a less obvious point than it should be. It took me many years of my life to realize that George Washington was a real dude.
Anything that can help a kid develop or turn on empathetic imagination is a challenge, because I think there’s an almost biological self-centeredness. I think until someone gets out into the world it’s difficult to understand that people have different experiences than you. For me, the whole mandate or the whole guiding principle of The Memory Palace is that history is fundamentally storytelling. Stories have a person doing a thing for a reason. That’s the way that novels are organized, and that’s the way that history is organized, but that’s also the way we think of things. The more we can return things to character, the better off we will be.