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Monday, November 8, 2010

November 8, 2010: Memorial Day

Thanks to Glory, one of the best American historical films of all time, I don’t think there’s too much danger of us leaving the 54th Massachusetts, Robert Gould Shaw, or African American Civil War soldiers out of our national narratives. It’s true that we largely had done so up until the film’s 1989 release, and certainly also true that it’s not necessarily ideal to get our history straight from a Hollywood film (although having read the letters of both Shaw and a member of the regiment, I can say that this particular film does a very good job of representing that history with complexity and sophistication while still going for the big emotional notes for sure). But nonetheless, on a blog devoted to American things that we should better remember, the 54th and Shaw probably don’t need much of a spot.
Yet as impressive and inspiring as the events surrounding the 54th were—from the formation of the regiment to its final moments at Fort Wagner, and everywhere in between—I would argue that the most inspiring moments to come out of those events happened between twenty and thirty years later, with the development and creation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Boston Common memorial to the regiment and to Shaw (begun in 1884 and unveiled in 1897). The inspiration, then and now, came first from Shaw’s family, who rejected Saint-Gaudens’ initial plans for an equestrian statue of just Shaw and argued instead (echoing Shaw’s father’s insistence that his son remain buried near Fort Wagner with his African American soldiers, rather than being exhumed and moved to a Boston-area cemetery) for a statue that included regimental members as well as their Colonel. And it is a serious understatement to say that Saint-Gaudens ran with that inspiration; he decided to use African American subjects on which to base his sculptures, becoming (it seems) the first white sculptor to do so for any monument or memorial, and as a result created a memorial that is both grand and intimate, heroic and deeply human.
The first time I saw the Shaw Memorial was as part of a History and Literature seminar in my freshman year of college, and I remember both the professors and my peers arguing that in it Shaw on horseback was still privileged above (literally and figuratively) the African American soldiers. And I guess I can see that argument, although he was a Colonel and would have ridden into battle on a horse, so I’d read that detail more as a part of Saint-Gaudens’ attempt at accuracy. But in any case, the Memorial as a whole, like the process that produced it, and like the men and moment that it captures, represents one of the very best things in our collective history and identity, the collaborative efforts of a multi-generational, multi-racial, and multi-vocal community across decades and in the face of some of the most brutal and tragic events we’ve ever witnessed.
I know my last couple of daily topics have been pretty dark ones, and I can’t promise that I won’t continue to feature heavily that kind—I think we’ve often been especially good at leaving the darkest histories and events and moments out of our narratives. But I also think, ironically, that many of the moments and figures and texts that would give us the best chance to forge a more perfect and inspiring collective, communal identity in response to those darknesses have also been ignored or forgotten. And I’ll always be very happy to focus on them too. More tomorrow, on one of the earliest Americans to respond to our darkest realities with hope and passion.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Some great images of and details about the Memorial, from the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site:
2)      Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” a bleaker, poetic take on the Memorial’s status, city, and nation in the mid-20th century:

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see you blogging again, Ben! Somehow that memorial is one of the things I always skipped when living in Boston -- saw a replica at the Smithsonian, though, and was incredibly impressed by the detail on the individualized black troops, which suggests a level of equality in spite of the fact that Shaw's up on his horse.