Tuesday, July 1, 2014
July 1, 2014: AmericanMythbusters: The Statue of Liberty
[As is the case with any nation, American identity has been built on a number of central myths—and occasions like the 4th of July bring them out in force. So this week I’ll be highlighting and challenging five such myths, leading up to a special holiday weekend post. Add your thoughts on these or other myths, American or otherwise, in comments!]
On the gaps in our memories of an American icon, and why they need filling.
The John Harvard Statue, located at the center of Harvard Yard and a favorite spot for tourist and parent-student pictures, is colloquially and accurately known as the statue of three lies: the statue’s likeness is not of 17th-century Pilgrim John Harvard but of a 19th-century student who posed for the sculptor; John Harvard is identified in the statue’s inscription as Harvard’s “Founder” but in fact was just one of the college’s earliest and most crucial financial backers; and the 1638 founding date listed in that same inscription is two years later than the actual 1636 founding (by a vote of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s General Court). The lesson here is, to my mind, two-part and significant: people are drawn to statues as particularly evocative and unifying symbols of a place or community or history; and yet they can not only condense but also oversimplify and even misrepresent those broad and complex identities and stories. And while none of the misrepresentations contained in the John Harvard Statue have much import outside of the Yard (if they do even inside it), those connected to one of the nation’s and world’s most famous Statues, the Statue of Liberty, are much more influential.
The oversimplifications and misrepresentations in our national narratives about the Statue exist on two distinct and even interestingly contrasting levels. For one thing, most of those narratives and our central images of the Statue link it to the broad theme of immigration to the United States; those connections are superficially verified yet significantly complicated by Emma Lazarus’s great sonnet “The New Colossus” (1883), which was written as part of a collection to raise money for the construction of the Statue’s pedestal and eventually (although only long after Lazarus’s 1887 death) inscribed onto the completed pedestal. Lazarus’s poem is, like many of the dedications at the Statue’s opening, most certainly a tribute to what she calls America’s stance of “world-wide welcome”—but I would stress just how strikingly democratic and open her vision of this core national attribute truly is, in the era of (in fact just one year after the passage of) the Chinese Exclusion Act and a decade in which the first huge waves of Eastern European and Jewish immigration (communities to which Lazarus was connected by ethnicity and distant nationality, although her family had been in America for over a century) were being greeted with significant degrees of distrust and open hostility. Virtually every adjective and phrase with which Lazarus’s “Mother of Exiles” describes her hoped-for immigrants carries a seemingly negative connotation (tired, poor, huddled masses, wretched refuse, homeless), and so the Statue’s and poem’s embrace of these arrivals thus not only welcomes them to America, but makes clear how fully our most ideal national identity is constituted out of, not in spite of, such superficially unwanted immigrants and communities.
On that level the gap between the Statue’s identity and the popular images and narratives is not a particularly large one, although I think we could use some more consistent reminders of the call to welcome all arrivals. Much more wide and meaningful, though, is the gap between definitions of the Statue as connected to immigration and ideal images of America as the Land of the Free (which would include Lazarus’) and its actual point of origin. The idea for the Statue originated with a Frenchman, Edouard Laboulaye, and both his overall perspective and his moment of inspiration were extremely specific: Laboulaye was the chairman of an anti-slavery society, and it was at a dinner party mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that he conceived of a monument to liberty in the United States as a gift for the nation’s 1876 Centennial. While certainly he was thinking in part of the nation’s founding and its ideals of liberty (and France’s role in helping it achieve independence from England), he very definitely hoped to remind Americans and outsiders alike of both the tragic legacy of slavery that existed alongside those ideals and of the role of a leader like Lincoln in helping end that system and bring America’s practices of liberty a bit more fully in line with the ideals. Once Laboulaye’s chosen sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, came to America and began planning the Statue, he moved away from those specific connections and toward the broader and more ideal American visions; the speeches and dedications at the opening ceremonies entirely echoed those emphases, as did works like Lazarus’, and the Statue’s separation from those questions of slavery and abolition became entrenched in the narratives and images from then on.
As with most of the narratives and images I’ve argued for in this space, I don’t think this is either-or—we can most definitely celebrate the ideals of our history as a nation of immigrants and of our founding values of liberty and equality while remembering some of our most dark historical realities and betrayals of those ideals. And if the Statue of Liberty could become thus a symbol not only of all that it has already meant and continues to mean, but also of (for example) slavery and of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it would be that much more meaningful and authentic of an American icon.
Next myth tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other myths, American or otherwise, you’d want to bust?