Monuments: Americas History in Art and Memory.
Random House, 272 pages, $45
Monuments generate awe or anger but rarely love. They risk being taken for granted or taken to task. They may end up as almost part of the landscape, like Mount Rushmore, or they may start out by causing a firestorm, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Like parades and anthems, they may have official stamped on them, which tends to bring out our inner anarchist, from Shelleys Ozymandias to a kid with a can of spray-paint.
Monuments rile up the masses, then? We should be so lucky. As Judith Dupré writes at the outset, monuments often get ignored because they come off as impractical and, in a digital era, hardly cutting-edge. Even worse, monuments are about the past. And Americans, as a publisher once told her, arent much for the past. Monuments are for yawning, our fellow-citizens seem to think.
Her beautiful book should make them change their minds. Dupré is a scholar with a novelists eye for detail and a journalists easy style. She has a strong thesis. Monuments matter more than ever because they are anchors in a sea of change. As in the post-Civil War era, Americans today are experiencing a monument-building boom. Monuments let us define the past and move on. Monuments, Dupré says, are a form of history made visible that frees history to move forward.
Dupré is an architectural historian, and the filter through which she expresses her thesis has mainly to do with the building process. Monuments are about people, and, in America, people are about democracy. Glorious, creative, messy, and moving, democracy is the stimulus behind the current surge of new monuments. Like the broad-shouldered builders of the Gilded Age, todays monument planners push agendas, mollify constituencies, display good or bad taste, drive the project through to completion, or see it shatter. The politics are often maddening but never uninteresting. Dupré, for example, displays infinite patience when chronicling the impact of, respectively, disability activists, animal rights protesters, and anti-smoking partisans on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
The sheer energy of the American people comes through on every page. And it comes through in a wealth of details. This book provides an overview, but with a camera that constantly zooms in for close-ups. As Monuments marches through discussions of over thirty American monuments, from the Alamo to Oklahoma City, the emphasis is usually on the small scale. In lucid prose, Dupré offers an insiders view, with a focus on architecture and design. She writes, for instance, of the nations most famous obelisk,
The Washington Monument is the tallest masonry structure in the world, made of some thirty-six thousand stones, and it is unlikely that it will ever relinquish that distinction.The precision and the symmetry of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are evident when we read, One hundred forty panelsseventy to a sideradiate from the center crease of the vertex.
We learn that the sculptor chose Mount Rushmore and not some other hill in South Dakota, because it had an expansive granite wall that faced southeast, enabling the sun to shine on it for most of the day. If it comes as a surprise to learn the sculptors name, John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, and of his bids to carve both Stone Mountain and the Lincoln Memorial, it is sheer delight to see him photographed in a bosuns chair, suspended in the sunshine beside Abraham Lincolns cheek.
Dupré is meticulous when it comes to design. Consider the books cover collage. The background is a replica, in raised relief, of ancient stones from Chinese villages that will be flooded over once the Three Gorges dam opens. Among the stones there appear boxed photos of iconic American monumentse.g., Lady Liberty and Mount Rushmore. The covers title letters were drawn for the book by Nick Benson, the stone-carver who is also interviewed inside. By the time the reader runs his fingers over the covers rugged cardboard, he has a first inkling of what makes this book so rich. Dupré approaches monuments with a jewelers eye.
The books photos are gorgeous, nearly 300 of them, in black-and-white and ranging in subject matter from the essential to the unexpected: from the crack in the Liberty Bell to a skateboarder on the base of a World War I monument in Rhode Island, and from the Washington Monument lit up by Fourth-of-July fireworks to a child running her finger over some letters of the Luminous Manuscript in Manhattans Center for Jewish History.
In a book dedicated to the grand scale, the details often stand out in sharpest relief. Consider a few: The body now buried in Arlington Cemeterys Tomb of the Unknown Soldier once lay in state on the same raised platform that had held the coffin of Abraham Lincoln. Ulysses S. Grants pallbearers in 1887 included former Confederate as well as former Union soldiers. The first monument at the Little Bighorn Battlefield was a stack of logs, eleven feet high, filled with horse bones from the field. It took an Act of Congress to restore the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, and which is now part of the King National Historic Site. Friedrich St. Florian, who designed the National World War II Memorial, is an immigrant from Austria, an enemy country during that conflict.
A screenwriter would envy this vignette of the Statue of Liberty:
The observation platform within the head, now closed, accommodated about thirty people at a time who could see through its windows the tablet held in Libertys left hand bearing the date July 4, 1776, Americas official birthday.In her discussion of the statue, Dupré tells us as well that it was dedicated in October 1886 on a day of rain, fog, and fireworks, in a harbor crammed with every kind of boat, one of them a steamer hired by suffragettes who bitterly pointed out the irony of erecting a statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty.
In Duprés telling, Americas monuments are a multicultural tapestry. Still, there is a great deal here for those of more conservative taste. Monuments omits none of the famous memorials. The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, and Liberty Bell all get their due. Nor is there any neglect of war monuments. The book offers ample discussions of monuments from, for instance, Texass War of Independence to the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. The book, however, also focuses on less famous subjects. New York Citys Potters Field is here, for example, as is Bostons Mount Auburn Cemetery. The Texas A & M University Bonfire Memorial appears, as does the New York Times capsule. There are ethnic and racial monuments, from the Freedom Schooner Amistad (the former slave ship) to the recent Native-American addition to the Little Bighorn battlefield site, to the Irish-American Hunger Memorial to the site of the former Japanese-American concentration camp at Manzanar. The AIDS quilt is here, and so is the Message from Mankind on the spacecraft Pioneer 10 and 11. Even Balto, the hero dog of the Iditarod Trail, takes a bow.
But the humblest stories steal the show. There is the grass-root beginnings of the Vietnam Veterans Wall. The temporary memorials of 9/11posters, displays, lights, and musicare recalled here before they fade from memory. Then there is Duprés short memoir of her next-door neighbor, Rickey Caruolo, growing up in Rhode Island. He played the guitar, joined the Marines, made Lance Corporal, and died in action in Vietnam. He was twenty-one years old. Caruolo was killed because he crawled out of the safety of his trench to drag back a wounded comrade. As the author writes, Almost forty years later, the memories of a guy who loved life, loved people, loved his country, are evergreen. We count him among us.
That might stand as an epitaph for this books learned and wise discussion of self-sacrifice, death, and losstempered, that is, by another, less personal lesson in this volume. Sometimes we need to put heroism back on its pedestal.
The point comes out in another show-stealing story, Duprés discussion of the Marine Corps War Memorial, better known as the Iwo Jima statue. This monument depicts five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, after conquering the island of Iwo Jima. The sculpture, in bronze, was carved by Felix W. de Weldon. The base of the statue, in black granite, lists every major Marine Corps engagement since the Corpss inception and it commemorates those Marines who sacrificed their lives for their country. It also quotes Admiral Nimitzs tribute to the men who fought on Iwo Jima: Uncommon valor was a common virtue.
In a brief but lapidary discussion, the author brings out the simple truths. The battle was savage and lasted for thirty-six days. The flag-raising was jubilant and carried out in full view of troops all over the island and offshore. The statue, by de Weldon (himself a United States Navy veteran) was based on a photograph that was not staged but spontaneous. The photographer, Joseph Rosenthal, was kept from military service by his poor eyesight. His photograph, the most famous American photograph of the Second World War, won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a postage stamp, a best-selling book, and a Hollywood movie as well as the statue. It also inspired a Johnny Cash song.
The six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima were named Harlon H. Block, John H. Bradley, Rene A. Gagnon, Ira H. Hayes, Franklin R. Sousley, and Michael Strank. They were Americans too. That is not the least of the stories that this insightful book has to tell.
Barry Strausss most recent book is The Trojan War: A New History (Simon & Schuster)
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