Thursday, May 29, 2008

Remembering Memorial Day

In the spirit of Memorial Day, I wanted to share this story that was published last week in the Wall Street Journal. As usual I can see both sides of the debate, but for me the whole point of monuments and memorials is that they make us think, which I think this story (and the Lincoln Memorial itself) does, too. In case you can't access it online, I have selected a "fair use" quantity of highlights (but not so much to attract the attention of Mr Murdoch's lawyers, I hope...):

A Misunderstood Monument

(Senior editor at the Weekly Standard, and author of "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.)

Four score and six years ago this Memorial Day weekend, our fathers cut the ribbon at the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of the National Mall...

As the years recede from its dedication in 1922, the memorial has come to stand for something its designers probably didn't foresee. It's a model of a certain way of understanding American history, a way that to some of us seems as starry-eyed and innocent as a preteen crush. You can't imagine it being built today, a half-century into our wised-up era.

...People had been trying to build a monument to Lincoln since 1865, but not until the first decade of the 20th century, 40 years after his death, did the money, talent and real estate come together. The site was unpromising -- a flood plain held together by knots of scrub grass, a mile from the Washington Monument. As luck would have it, both the architect, a North Carolinian named Henry Bacon, and his sculptor, a Yankee Brahmin named Daniel Chester French, were veterans of the City Beautiful movement, which liked nothing better than to pretty up an untidy landscape.

Design and construction moved slowly, thanks to bureaucratic hiccups and World War I. The jewel of the temple was to be a statue of its subject, set under alabaster skylights in a central hall, flanked on either side with Lincoln's greatest utterances: the Gettysburg Address on the south wall and his Second Inaugural on the north. Bacon resisted several proposals that struck him as overenthusiastic. He and French insisted that Lincoln be shown in street clothes, and that the physical likeness not be idealized. The conventions of classical art required that only warriors be depicted as standing figures, so Lincoln would be seated, in repose, an attitude suited to the contemplative calling of statesmen, philosophers and poets, and to the contemplation the statue was meant to inspire in those who came to see it.

The statue that French produced is casually called an "icon." It's a double-edged cliché. We use it sometimes as a compliment, more often as a sly denigration, to describe figures of history who have been idealized into unreality -- stripped, as Mr. Thomas says, of all earthly imperfection.

Yet French worked hard to make his huge Lincoln a man and not a god. This is one rumpled icon. The imperfections are hard to miss. His hair is uncombed. His tie is askew. His hands betray a fidgety disposition, and his eyes aren't quite symmetrical. He's really, really big, but he's still a man.

But why is he so big? We are taught nowadays that heroes are seldom what they seem to be, as though this revelation had been uniquely granted to us. But we make a mistake if we see in the Lincoln memorial a starry-eyed innocence, a naïveté ripe for debunkers and revisionists. The attitude of the generation that built the memorial was subtler and more knowing, and nicely expressed by President Harding at the dedication 86 years ago.

"Lincoln was a very natural human being," Harding insisted, "with the frailties mixed with the virtues of humanity. There are neither supermen nor demigods in the government of republics. It will be better for our conception of government and institutions if we will understand this fact."

Americans make Lincoln an icon, Harding said, not because he deserves it but because we need it, as a persistent reminder of something larger than any man, flawed as he must be. The truth of the icon, the reason behind it, is there in the temple itself, in plain sight, not hidden or encoded or insinuated. It's found etched in the wall to the right of the statue, in the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln reminded his country that its potential for greatness lived in its founding proposition. And that's why the memorial is so large, so grand, so perfect in form and scale: It honors not just a man but a proposition -- an idea that no wised-up debunker can hope to deflate.


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