So here’s a question for the class. Just why are we battling over the graven images of heroes who tried to dismantle their native country before its 100th birthday? Or that of a murderous paid agent of an imperial power who never set foot on this continent and who, until the end of his life, was wrong about where he did land?
Is it just about celebrations of conquest and supremacy? Or is there something else — sadder and more pitiful? Maybe it has to do with wounded pride, historic shame and an effort to show, in stone and bronze that “hey, we were not wrong.”
Those statues that stand silently on guard on village commons and town squares across the land — North and South — bear a certain family resemblance. That’s not an accident.
After the American Civil War, foundries, mostly in the North, that had been churning out field artillery pieces now found themselves with a lot of excess production capacity and looked for a new market. They found it in town councils and veterans’ groups that wanted to memorialize their contribution to the late unpleasantness.
Being run by enterprising folks they began advertising. For a modest fee, you could have a handsome statue in “white bronze,” (actually zinc) and for a little extra in the shipping and handling it could be customized.
Along with the ubiquitous infantryman, standing at parade rest, you could add a sailor coiling a line, an artilleryman with a cannon ramrod or a cavalry trooper drawing his sabre. And, for our ex-Confederate customers, we can replace the Union forage cap and “US” belt buckle with a slouch hat and “CSA” accoutrements. (Robert E. Lee, at the same time, argued against erecting monuments that would “keep open the sores of war.”)
Of course, more prosperous communities were able to commission more original works, like those in Attleboro, North Attleboro and Foxboro (where the silent sentinel is carved from wood and stands atop an elaborate memorial hall.)
But why would communities in the South choose to commemorate those who led it to defeat? These were proud people, afflicted, as one author has said, with “an excess of Sir Walter Scott.” And they had been sure — absolutely certain — that they would win any trial at arms with the Northern rabble. “Gone with the Wind” may be great film making and bad history, but it does contain one priceless nugget.
In an early scene, some of the hotheads gathered at the O’Hara plantation, Tara, ask Rhett Butler, recently returned from accursed Yankeedom, his opinion.
In a few lines Clark Gable, as Butler, gives as concise an outline of why the South will lose as you are likely to find in any history book. He ends with, “All we’ve got are cotton and slaves and — arrogance.”
The statues and the whole swords and roses Lost Cause myth (of which “Gone with the Wind” is the perfect distillation) were part of an attempt to ease the pain of loss. Think of William Faulkner and, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s a mythology in which the North was willing to be complicit for the sake of a restored Union.
Of course, written out of this warm, gauzy story of reconciliation were millions of formerly enslaved Black people who, as it happened, wanted their story told in sculpture as well.
The much-derided “Freedmen’s Memorial” in Boston, now slated for removal, always seemed an odd addition to the Hub landscape. It shows a Black man kneeling, his shackles broken, as Abraham Lincoln stands over him, extending a hand of blessing.
Robert B. Parker cites the Boston statue in one of his Spenser novels with his protagonist delivering a five-letter verdict. It is not “swell.” But the original in Washington was paid for with the donations of formerly enslaved people. President U.S. Grant performed the unveiling, and Frederick Douglas — who, as our president will remind you, is getting better known these days — was the keynote speaker. The statue is supposed to show a formerly enslaved man, not kneeling, but rising to his feet having broken his chains. But is that what people see when they look at it?
Which brings us to Columbus. Columbus never landed anywhere that’s named after him. And the Admiral of the Ocean Sea went to his grave sure that he had found a route to the riches of the Indies, not a new world. But for one set of citizens, he had all that was needed to make him a hero. For generations, American Catholics — not just Italians, by the way — were reminded by the WASP establishment that all real American heroes were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Catholics were, well, somewhat suspect, patriotismwise. After all, they followed an alien religion, hostile to democracy, were beholden to a foreign power and might just be terrorists. (Well, to be fair, some of my ancestors may well have been terrorists. Google the term “Fenian raids” sometime.) The response of Catholic America was, eventually, “What about America’s first hero?” If you went to parochial school, you clearly remember memorizing Joaquin Miller’s poem, with its refrain, “Sail on!” as an image of steely courage. And it’s no accident that the largest Catholic laymen’s organization is the Knights of, well, you know.
In his introduction to a new 1975 American edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” the writer Peter S. Beagle told readers, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discovers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses.” Tolkien, at least, Beagle said, was a voyager in the imagination.
Perhaps its time we leave our heroes to the imagination, too.