Monuments and Commemoration

John Bodnar’s Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century and Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape both take on the tasks of discussing the ways in which public memory shapes Americans’ commemoration of wars and significant national events. Bodnar seeks to focus on “the creation of public memory in commemorative activities celebrating America’s past and the dramatic exchange of interests that are involved in such exercise,” and notes that the “shaping of a past worthy of public commemoration in the present is contested and involves a struggle for supremacy between advocates of various political ideas and sentiments.” (Bodnar 13) In the first chapter Bodnar makes an important distinction between two different forms of cultural expressions: official and vernacular. The official cultural expression originates in the concerns of cultural leaders or authorities at all levels of society who are interested in social unity and seek to promote a nationalist or patriotic culture. (Bodnar 14) The vernacular cultural expression represents an array of specialized interests, which are intent on protecting values and restating views of reality derived from firsthand experience in small-scale communities. Vernacular expressions seek to convey what social reality feels like rather than what it should be like. (Bodnar 14) He then spends the rest of his book discussing the “tension between official and vernacular memory and how it was resolved in commemorative events.” (Bodnar 20)

Savage’s Monument Wars is a well-written piece of scholarship in that it contains a well-stated thesis that is continually emphasized and connected to the evidence in addition to being being engaging and accessible to multiple audiences. The idea of vernacular and official cultural expressions are echoed throughout Savage’s work. The initial plan for the Mall, constructed by Pierre L’Enfant and in step with the ideology of the Federalist Party, intended to use public monuments as a way to develop the city and justify the expansion of the nation. L’Enfant wanted statues of Revolutionary War heroes to line the Mall as symbols of moral exemplars for citizens of the young nation. The monumental core was meant to create a sense of national unity and pride in the nation. In this way L’Enfant was championing an official cultural expression that promoted nationalist ideals, the triumph of the state, and sought to create a collective memory. Savage and Bodnar both discuss the debate over Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One reason for the backlash to her design is that it does not recognize soldiers as heroes but as victims. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed to be therapeutic for visitors and for the nation. Because the memorial did not propagate a purely official cultural expression–one the worked to unify the nation under a didactic monument that honored soldiers as heroes–those in power made changes to the monument to make it more closely resemble an official expression. A flagpole and statutes of three servicemen were added in a small copse of trees close to the memorial, and an inscription was added to the memorial itself.

Savage notes that the increase in monument creation in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries was “localized, the product of specialized constituencies rather than mass national campaigns or federally sponsored programs.” (Savage 78) Monuments were sponsored by groups of political elites, ethnic organizations, and civic and private associations. Despite the proliferation of monuments resulting from this vernacular cultural expression, these monuments would never form the monumental core for the nation as they were disparate and spread throughout the city. Savage remarks that the periphery of the Mall, rather than the core, became the place “for the projects of ‘ethnic’ groups and other ‘lobbies’ that somehow lacked the credentials or the desire to be…fully ‘American.'”(Savage 210)

Savage’s work also echoes that of Trouillot’s in the silencing of various histories. Savage notes that after the Civil War the Park Commission wanted to demolish the residential areas along Missouri Avenue and Main Avenue. These areas had an infamous reputation and were described as slums of filth and crime. The residents that were displaced were not provided provisional housing, and they had no say in the plan. Savage writes: “The residents of these two areas experienced a double erasure, first of their neighborhoods and then of their history.” (Savage 172) Similarly, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial only includes the names of soldiers who died from hostilities or accidents in the combat zone, not those who died from Agent Orange or suicide. In this way, the memorial inadvertently silences the sacrifice of some soldiers and makes their death seem less meaningful.

In addition to Trouillot, touches of Blight’s strands of Civil War memory are also present in Monument Wars. Savage notes that monuments created to commemorate the Civil War were centered around the theme of reconciliation. The best example of this is the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial was not allowed to be overtly triumphal, as the funding bill needed to pass Congress and gain the approval of white southerners. Slavery is never explicitly mentioned at the memorial site; it is not Lincoln the emancipator that is being commemorated but Lincoln the unifier.

There are multiple sections of this book that stand out as particularly fascinating: Savage’s discussion of the spatial turn and the shift from a focus on grounds to public space; his analysis of the Lincoln Memorial; the move from hero monuments to victim monuments; and the Mall being used as a site of protest rather than a site of unity as originally intended by the designers. Savage’s discussion of the Holocaust Museum is compelling and warrants more attention. He writes: “The Holocaust Memorial, too, is supposed to help produce an outcome: ‘never again.’ But the question remains how the memorial can transform the passive suffering of individual visitors into determined collective action, or how to move from reflection to intervention.” (Savage 287) This theme of museums as warnings, rather than serving a therapeutic or didactic purpose, is fascinating. Much more could be said on this topic, and the September 11 Memorial and Museum would make for an interesting comparative study to the Holocaust Museum. As he spent so much of the book focusing on the Washington Monument and then spent several pages on the Lincoln Memorial, his treatment of the third major monument on the core, that of Thomas Jefferson, is rather cursory in comparison. Much could have been said about the design of the monument and the debate over what role slavery should or should not have played in this commemoration of a president and slaveowner.

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