[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]
On a historically, culturally, and symbolically crucial statue and monument.
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 an African American soldier from 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; I look forward to Kevin Levin’s forthcoming Shaw bio for a lot more such contexts). But nonetheless, on a blog devoted first and foremost to American things that we should better remember, the 54th and Shaw probably don’t need as much of a spot as many of my topics.
Yet as impressive and inspiring as the events surrounding the 54th were—from the formation of the regiment to its climactic moments at South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, and everywhere in between—I would argue that some of 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 models 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 one of the professors and all of 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 (which echoes in part this important book by historian Kirk Savage, perhaps the foremost American scholar of this week’s subject), although Shaw 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 (especially given the care with which he sculpted those individual African American soldiers). 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.
Next public art tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?