Must Read: Memorial Mania by Erika Doss

Guest post by Tristram Riley-Smith

Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America
by Erika Doss, University of Chicago Press (2010)

At the end of William Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, the castrated idiot, Benjy Compson, weeps when his black carer walks him the wrong way past the memorial to the Confederate soldier in Oxford, Miss. Honor-rites have been flouted, and through Benjy’s tears we sense the pent-up emotions of a defeated yet defiant, impotent yet proud, South.

Memorial Mania
Credit: University of Chicago Press

This vignette points to a wider truth. Memorials carry enormous emotional and symbolic freight, providing clues as to how people feel about their society. This is the subject of Erika Doss’s scholarly and readable book, Memorial Mania.

In responding enthusiastically to this work, I must admit to sitting in the center of its target audience “sweet spot.” As an anthropologist of art (having conducted doctoral research among the Buddhist “god-makers” of the Kathmandu Valley), I am partial to books that focus on the place of material culture in society. And in my recent incarnation as an anthropologist of America, I relish work that reveals new aspects of this complex and fascinating society.

But I believe Memorial Mania will appeal to a wide audience – both inside and outside academia – given the quality of the writing and the presentation of the material. The book is packed with information and insight as it documents the growing phenomenon of memorialization in America; and 160 illustrations can only enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the subject. Doss also has an ear for the well-turned phrase: she describes memorials, for instance, as “archives of public affect” and “repositories of feelings and emotions.”

The author adds depth and structure to her work by examining her subject in relation to different feelings. Under “fear,” for instance, Doss explores the proliferation of terrorism memorials, linked to security narratives (with an interesting digression into the narrative of national innocence). Under “shame,” she describes memorials recalling racism, slavery and war relocation; she focusses this chapter on Duluth’s Lynching Memorial in Minnesota, that recollects a horrific act of mob violence from the 1920s that was new to me.

For Doss, the process of “giving thanks” is associated with social consensus and political obligation in America, and so her exploration of “gratitude” is centred on the memorialization of World War II (WWII), noting that there has been a rash of monuments to this crucial episode in the 20th century.

The development and dedication of the National WWII Memorial in the Mall receives special attention here. I would agree with her that “imperialism, militarism and hyper-masculinity are all key” (p 213), and I share the distaste and disquiet expressed by many American commentators (including WWII veterans) in the design of this monument – it smacks of the sort of neo-classical triumphalism that the Axis would have gone for if Hitler and Il Duce had won the war. (For the real enthusiast, I recommend a visit to the American WWII Cemetery and Memorial at Madingley, outside Cambridge, England. This has simplicity and dignity, impressive landscaping and sculpture, but still spring a surprise – a new world and extravagance – inside its chapel).

National World War II Memorial
National WWII Memorial. Flickr/Jeffrey B.
Doss argues that American memorialization has grown in recent decades, and she ascribes this to heightened anxieties about national identity and national narratives. I guess I would find this convincing, since this is a theme explored in my own portrait of America – The Cracked Bell; but the view is reinforced in The Insecure American, a recent collection of ethnographic essays edited by Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman.

She goes on to show that a single monument can evoke very different emotional responses, reflecting the complex currents that flow within and through a multi-cultural society like the U.S. For instance, Doess analyzes ways in which changing public perceptions of the Native American have led to different ways of depicting Indians – noble savage, courageous warrior, ethnographic exotic, spiritual seer and eco-guardian; meanwhile, the trope of Indian victimization has given way to that of strength and steely anger.

In this vein, I was fascinated by Doss’s description of the Crazy Horse Memorial (pp 340-356). This unfinished sculpture in the Black Hills of South Dakota was designed by Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked in the late 1930s on the colossal carving of the heads of four American presidents at Mt. Rushmore (designed by Gutzon Borglum).

A Native American leader had asked Borglum to include Crazy Horse – the Lakota warrior who defeated Custer’s U.S. cavalry force of 210 men in the Battle of Little Bighorn – in the Mt. Rushmore work, but this was rejected. So Ziolkowski started his own project 17 miles away. His sculpture is another exercise in gigantism: only the head of the bare-chested Indian warrior astride his stallion has been finished so far, and this alone measures 87 feet in height. More than 1 million people visited the memorial complex in 2007: they may be attracted by a sentimental interest in a great warrior, or in exhibits that appear as a testimonial to the can-do attitude of Ziolkowski.

Some Native Americans have complained that the figure looks nothing like Crazy Horse; others insist that the Black Hills are sacred and should never have been blasted with dynamite and defaced – forgive the wordplay – with faces, even of the victor of Little Bighorn.

Memorial Mania is full of clearly-presented material like this, frequently showing the way in which contrary positions and political maneovering can be evoked by monuments. Other examples include:

  • the confrontation in March 2007 between veterans groups (Rolling Thunder and Gathering of Eagles) and anti Iraq War protesters at the Vietnam Vets Memorial; the former rushed to defend “their” memorial from being used in a war protest
  • the change of fortune experienced by monuments to Christopher Columbus: at the start of the 20th century, the explorer was honored in hundreds of memorials across America as a pivotal actor in the drama of national discovery. Today he is often pilloried as a mass murderer and instigator of slavery, and acts of iconoclasm against his memorials are not uncommon
  • a similar dispute over Juan de Oñate’s commemoration in Albuquerque: those celebrating the man who “discovered” New Mexico have been criticized by those concerned with the suffering he brought to the Pueblo Indians, and this has led to the creation of a parallel counter-memorial
  • the drama of Baldwin’s Park, where Judy Baca’s Danzas Indigenas (a complex work incorporated into a commuter rail station, recollecting the process of Spanish conquest and colonization in California) became the butt of angry protest from an “anti illegal immigrant group” called Save Our State.

It is a sign of the quality of Doss’ work that I am left wanting more. There are facets of American memorialization that are only briefly touched on. For instance, I have noticed a tendency to incorporate extensive script into memorials, reminding me that this society has a fixation with text (whether biblical or constitutional). I would have been interested in hearing Doss’ take on this phenomenon.

I would also like to have seen an analysis of the tendency to turn the homes and haunts of American heroes into museums – think of the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J.; the Edison Winter Home in Fort Myers, Fl.; the Edison Birthplace Museum in Milan, Ohio; the Thomas Edison House in Louisville, Ky.; and the Edison Memorial Tower and Museum in Edison, N.J.. This is another way in which America maps out its narrative and gives a three-dimensional quality to its myths.

We will all have our favourite American memorial, and despite the range of works covered in Memorial Mania, there is no guarantee that ours will feature. So allow me, here, to mention the extraordinary bronze tableau by Augustus Saint-Gauden, commemorating the Massachusetts 54th Regiment (the country’s first volunteer African-American force, formed to fight in the Civil War). This memorial was dedicated on Boston Common in 1897, and a copy in the National Gallery of Art attracts large crowds to this day – further evidence of the impact that memorials have on the American imagination.

Doss does bring Faulkner’s world up-to-date. She describes the University of Mississippi establishing in 2006 a life-size bronze memorial of James Meredith – the first black student to attend the school. The statue is placed about 100 yards from a 19th century standing-soldier of a Confederate infantryman in Oxford, Miss. (Benjy Compson’s?), leading Doss to muse: “If this sort of commemorative accrual permits a discourse of radicalized memory, it also marks the passage from one belief system to another by disrupting the monolithic symbolic capital of Southern white supremacy and asserting the doctrine of civil rights” (363).

Tristram Riley-Smith is the British author of The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty. He studied social anthropology at Cambridge University, conducting doctoral research in Nepal and post-doctoral research in Thailand. Dr. Riley-Smith is now preparing the groundwork for an anthropological portrait of his own country – the working title is Ghosts: In Search of the Spirit of England.

One thought on “Must Read: Memorial Mania by Erika Doss

  1. Pingback: The Korean War Memory Tour Worked Especially Hard On This Post | The Korean War Memory Tour

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