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Books

Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America

Erika Doss
The University of Chicago Press, 2010
Reviewed by Freke Vuijst   

Say, 50 years from now, a young woman boards the train in the small California town of Martinez. Before entering the station, she comes across a monument consisting of a flagpole; a plaque that cites the date September 11, 2001; and two rusty-red pieces of steel. Even if the young woman knows that more than 3,000 American lives were lost on that date in a brazen act of terrorism, would she have any reason to know that the corroded scraps of steel are the mangled remains of the twin towers destroyed on that day? Would the steel pillars speak to her heart, as they spoke to the heart of the mayor of Martinez who commissioned this memorial?

Unlikely.

Yet all over America, in more than a hundred cities and towns, 9/11 memorials have been built, often constructed in whole or in part from the metal remains of the towers. Author Erika Doss calls these metal scraps “holy relics.”

Doss is a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, and in her highly readable book, she documents the flood of memorials that are relentlessly being built all over contemporary America, commemorating events and people ranging from cancer survivors to murdered teenagers, from organ donors to dead astronauts. But most astonishing are the “terrorism memorials,” as Doss calls them. They are intended to commemorate the victims of terrorism, but what they reveal most are the fears and insecurities of our nation, our demand for heroes, and the need to find near-instant “closure” to our national trauma by encapsulating it in a patriotic display of stone and steel.

Doss does not delve deeply into the design of the memorials. Instead, she examines the broader cultural, social, and political aspects of our obsession with memory and history, and why we feel the need to express this obsession in monuments. These memorials will be with us for years to come, and yet, as Doss makes clear, it is not for the future the memorials are built — not for that young woman 50 years from now —  but as therapy for our present trauma. Seldom, Doss says, do we meaningfully reflect on what we choose to memorialize and why.

In one of Doss’s many colorful anecdotes, she tells of architect Daniel Libeskind (whom Doss calls “something of a memorial guru”) presenting an addition to the Denver Art Museum that created a new, outdoor open space. The architect was asked what should be done with that space and Libeskind responded, “a memorial garden.” Museum staffers asked: “A memorial to what?”

Indeed. This is the question Doss poses: What are we memorializing, and why?


Landscape and Memory

Simon Schama
Random House, 1996
Reviewed by Pratap Talwar   

Schama’s thesis in this grand excursion through the history of landscape in Western art is that “nature” has been constantly appropriated, represented, interpreted, and reworked both physically and in the collective memory, and that, therefore, man-made and natural landscapes are inseparable. The historian and art critic draws on landscape as the subject of myth, poesia, and the dialectics of urbanization: preservation and development; public and private; nature (wild) and arcadia (idyllic).

Although the book was first published in 1996, a contemporary reading of Landscape and Memory translates the common roots of environmental and “public realm” themes in current design practice.

Formally, Schama refutes a Kantian definition of “beauty,” arguing that the primal encoding of experience, and its cultural retention and recall — be it the “holy vaulted chamber of the forest roof,” rivers of time, or the tectonic permanence of mountains — are legible in all landscape figuration. He observes a common source for the raw expressionism of the German painter Anselm Kiefer’s insistent perspective and gritty landscapes of encoded repentance, and his own visceral childhood memories of squishy bog mud between his toes while describing estuarial landscapes. Even in the cool abstract essentialism of a Mondrian painting, Schama imagines the stretching of tree boughs in a flat, airy picture plane. By such interpretation, the pervasiveness of landscape is unassailable.


Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

James W. Loewen
Touchstone, 2000
Reviewed by Robert David Sullivan   

History isn’t always written by the winners. As the author explains in this muckraking travelogue, a bit of ingenuity and a lot of nerve can change the perception of historic events for generations to come.

Similar to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Loewen’s book rolls aside the Great (White) Man theory of American history to relay both the heroics and the atrocities omitted from roadside markers. Many examples involve the Native Americans overlooked in all those “First settled in” signs, but Lies Across America is foremost about the remarkable success of “Southern heritage” groups, particularly the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in getting their spin carved in stone.

The rehabilitation of the Confederacy takes the form of euphemism (slaves turn into “servants”) and selective preservation. (There are opportunities to see slave quarters in plantation houses, but the far worse shelters in the fields have mostly been destroyed.) More impressive is the way Confederacy commemoration frequently overstates popular support for the rebellion. For example, a northern Texas town that opposed secession now has a courthouse monument honoring the Confederate forces who killed scores of residents “determined to destroy the order” of the town (that is, who supported the Union).

Many of these monuments were erected long after anyone with memories of the events was gone, as counter-responses to the civil rights movement. (Loewen writes that Confederate General Nathan Forrest is on more historical markers than anyone else in Tennessee, and it might have something to do with his being the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.)

How does one know whether to trust a historical marker? One tip is the passive voice. Far from a mere concern of fussy English teachers, it can be a sly tool for leaving out vital information. Beware signs that say structures “were built” (possibly by slaves) or violence “was committed” (by whom, against whom?).

The book moves from west to east, and New England gets only a few pages at the end. Darien, Connecticut, is dinged for not informing visitors that it was a “sundown town” (blacks and Jews not allowed to stay overnight), and New Hampshire is mocked for honoring Franklin Pierce, its only president and a consensus pick for worst person to ever occupy the White House. By this point, the reader must conclude that fixing every marker to satisfy Loewen is an impossible task. Better to bring your smartphone and consult Wikipedia when you stop at a historic site; even that is probably more accurate than whatever was hammered into the ground.