How America Remembers: An Introduction

How America Remembers: An Introduction

He came down the stairs on the right: a man in his late-60s, or early 70s, walking slowly, with a slight stoop. He passed along the long stone slab bearing the names of the fallen from right to left, from West to East, from 1973 back in time, pausing briefly two or...

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, Chicago, IL


A woman from a nearby office enjoys a cup of coffee, a student is immersed in reading, a man in his late-60s pauses for a few moments to remember a fallen comrade. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza on Chicago’s Riverwalk is a unique commemorative space. Unlike many public memorials, which enjoin passers to stop, look up and remember, the memorial plaza invites them to remember within the space.

The plaza focuses on a memorial fountain with a slab of black granite bearing the names of almost 3,000 Illinois servicemen who died in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. The fountain is flanked by a terraced lawn where Chicagoans, descending the stairs from State Street, or strolling along the Riverwalk, can stop, and rest, and choose for themselves how, and whether to remember. It is a powerful, contemplative space, and it is unique among American memorials. It echoes Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, while simultaneously evoking the “memorials for use” – parks, schools, bridges – built in the 1940s and 1950s to mark the memory of the Second World War.

Yet this was accidental, or at least it was not by design. The memorial fountain was originally located in what the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin called “a glorified traffic island on Wacker Drive,” a location at the confluence of Wabash and Wacker with “all the serenity of a drag strip [that] unintentionally symbolized the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home.”

Indeed, Chicago’s Vietnam memorial was something of an afterthought; an orphan city project, undertaken with little public input, evidently in response to the growing profile of Lin’s monument as it was being built in Washington. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund slected Lin’s design – a wall of polished black marble engraved with the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam – in May 1981, and construction began the following November. Controversy over the design erupted in the summer of 1982, and shortly afterward the city of Chicago and the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology opened a design competition for the city’s own memorial.

It’s impossible to say how profoundly the designer was influenced by Lin or the controversy over the Wall; there appears to have been very little public comment. But the monument Mayor Jane Byrne dedicated before a crowd of about 200 veterans and their families on a chilly Veterans Day four months later – the same day the of the dedication of Washington memorial – bears a striking resemblance. It is clearly in conversation with Lin’s design, and meant to redress what some critics believed to be its shortcomings.

The Tribune reported that the city’s veterans got “an overdue ‘thank you’” on that day, but Chicago’s memorial fountain, stranded on a strip of land surrounded by city traffic, never seemed entirely adequate. As Kamin noted, a traffic island is hardly an ideal place for contemplation. Only in 2005, in the wake of a new war, and in the context of a revolution of memorial practice, did the fountain and the names move to their new home as part of a renovation of Chicago’s downtown riverfront.

The memorial plaza is tucked into a small corner of the Riverwalk, now supplemented with a sculpture of the Vietnam Service Medal by Gary Tillery – a Vietnam veteran – set into the wall behind the names. The space feels more capacious than it is. Engraved in the stone wall above the names, the phrase “Chicago Remembers” is both descriptive and prescriptive.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC

There are 58,318 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, marking the deaths of a generation of young men, and eight women, in the United States’ military intervention in Southeast Asia between 1956 and 1975. The names are engraved in highly polished black marble set into the earth in Constitution Gardens at the western end of the National Mall.

The memorial reveals itself gradually to visitors as they pass long the path skirting the lake: a memory first glimpsed, and then only fully apprehended as they confront it directly. At certain times of the morning, in the spring and summer, the first hint of the wall is a flash of sunlight reflecting off of its gleaming surface.

This is intentional; Maya Lin, the Yale architecture student who designed the memorial in 1981, meant it to be a site of reflection. Inspired by the memorials for the Great War – those public places of private grief – Lin conceived her design as “an interface, between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond. I chose black granite in order to make the surface reflective and peaceful.”

The reflective surface is even more than that, notes the cultural critic Marita Sturken; it is also an interactive screen that interpellates visitors into the narrative of names. The black reflective surface echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, she wrote in 1991, “that allows viewers to participate in the memorial, seeing their own images in the names, [and] they are thus implicated in the listing of the dead.”

The names, listed without rank, in the order of the deaths, meticulously maintained, updated, added and removed as conditions require, make this a memorial of collective individuality. The memorials of the Civil War honored the “silent sentinel in the abstract,” those of the Great War were cenotaphs – empty tombs – to the unknown soldiers of a generation. Each name on the Vietnam Veterans memorial is a nexus of trajectories: 58,318 sons, daughters, lovers, parents – even the teenager next door who played the Rolling Stones too loudly. The memorial draws its power from an inversion of the Great War’s memorial practice: it transforms collective, public grief into innumerable moments of personal mourning.

No bodies are buried in soil of Constitution Gardens, but it is there that mourners commune with the dead, by leaving ritual offerings – dog tags, medals, letters, photos of the dead. In Carried to the Wall, Kristin Ann Hass notes that, while this practice has roots in private funerary traditions, “there is no history of speaking with things in public spaces.” This was something new; an unplanned, unexpected innovation of the memorial itself, and its power to personalize a collective tragedy. And the National Parks Service, the wall’s custodians, encourage visitors also to take something away in the form of charcoal rubbings. The transaction of memory is thus deeply personal, and focused on the specificity of the living’s encounters with the names of the dead.

It can be difficult to grasp the controversy that raged right up to the memorial’s dedication on Veterans Day 1982. Some critics felt cheated of a heroic monument. Writing in The Washington Post one year before the dedication, Vietnam veteran Tom Carhart denounced Lin’s design as “a black gash… of dishonor and shame.” He proposed, instead, that the wall of names be built to stand above, and not within, the ground, of white marble to put it “in beautiful harmony, rather than stark contrast, with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.” Above all, he demanded that it be capped with the flag.

Few of the visitors who quietly, and solemnly file past the wall, stopping for a few moments to remember a loved one, or to contemplate the name of a stranger, feel cheated. Preserving the names of the fallen, as the markers of their memory, seems so right, so proper, that the memorial has become the template for memorials elsewhere in the United States and the world. The power of Lin’s design is the power of names – engraved in stone, sewn into a quilt, spoken to power – to ensure that they will not be forgotten.

Liberation Monument, Liberty State Park, NJ

Located at the far southern end of Liberty State Park in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, the Liberation Monument inspires a wide range of responses. Joggers stretching at the base of its massive plinth often seem oblivious to the dramatic sculpture towering above; picnickers at the tables in the recreation area just to the west sometimes gaze at it in a blend of curiosity and puzzlement.

More often, however, passersby – alone, with a dog on leash, or with a child in a stroller – stop, look up, and contemplate for a moment the two-ton monument’s meaning.

This is a Holocaust memorial, one of only two in New Jersey. Commissioned by the state in 1983, and dedicated two years later, the monument depicts an American soldier carrying a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in a secular pietà. It was designed, and executed in bronze by Nathan Rapoport, a Jewish sculptor born in Warsaw in 1911 who escaped to the Soviet Union – and then to the United States – just ahead of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1939.

There is a visceral power to Rapoport’s sculpture reminiscent of Auguste Rodin and Kathe Kollwitz. The figures’ bodies are slightly distorted, particularly in the hands and feet, and their faces are masks of stylized emotion – evoking, perhaps, the universality of the subject. Yet, while most other Holocaust memorials are abstractions to articulate the enormity of the tragedy and the unspeakable horror of the death camps, like the Holocaust Memorial Park in New York, or Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Liberation Monument is uniquely literal.

In one sense, that is a source of its power: it literally embodies the tragedy in these figures. Yet, in another sense, it evacuates the memory of the tragedy in an appeal to nationalism and national pride. For the Liberation Monument is not really – in fact at all – a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, but to “America’s role of preserving freedom and rescuing the oppressed.” In an odd, and somewhat unsettling way, it enjoins passersby not so much to remember the dead, but the heroism of the American liberators, and to reinforce a nationalist self-image.

It is, perhaps, not objectionable to put a positive spin on a great tragedy. Speaking at the dedication ceremony on 30 May 1985, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean said the monument invited “a unique blend of serious contemplation and yet enduring hope.” Yet, across the river from where Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied admission to the United States in 1940, one has to wonder if this enduring hope merely mystifies the full enormity of a tragic memory.

Civil War Memorial, Lincoln Park, Jersey City, NJ

Striding decisively, with determination in his jaw and a Springfield rifle in his hand, the bronze soldier in Jersey City’s Lincoln Park commemorates “the soldiers of Jersey City who fought in the War of the Rebellion.” It was funded primarily through the largesse of Edward J. Donnelly, a sergeant in the 5th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, who saw action in the Siege of Petersburg before returning home to Jersey City in 1864.

In many respects, the Jersey City memorial is much like the thousands of “Silent Sentinels” erected in parks and town squares throughout the United States in the decades following the Civil War. Sarah Beetham and Catherine Clinton write of a “mass commemorative project” that was central to the postwar project of reunion, and which stimulated a mass-produced monument industry to meet “the burgeoning demand for commemorative statuary following the war by producing stock figures, sold through catalogs.”

That resemblance is superficial. The mass-produced soldiers, identical save for belt buckles engraved with “USA” or “CSA,” as local requirements demanded, arose in the flush of nationalism and white reconciliation that Jackson Lears slyly calls the “Rebirth of a Nation.” The bronze soldier of Lincoln Park is from a different time when, as the living memory of the war died, public memory was cast in the bronze and stone of myth. Americans now remembered the men in blue and grey as equally courageous, equally honorable, and motivated by the same patriotism.

This sculpture, of a brave and determined young man out of the pages of Stephen Crane, is the work of Joseph P. Pollia, a Sicilian immigrant of formidable gifts who must count among the masters of American public memorial art of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time when, as Jennifer Wingate writes in Sculpting Doughboys, in the second great surge of American memorial building, artists like Pollia competed bitterly with the manufacturers of the cheaper, mass-produced “Silent Sentinels” for commissions to commemorate the war to end wars.

Pollia was a busy man, sculpting Great War memorials for Milford, CT, New York City, and Tarrytown, NY, Lynn, MA, and Storm Lake, Iowa. And in that great tide of patriotic fervor, he was also called upon to design monuments to the national heroes of that earlier war; whether they were the common soldier in Lincoln Park, or Philip Sheridan, the great Union general whose equestrian statue stands in Sheridan Square in New York City.

Yet Pollia’s most famous work, commissioned in the same patriotic times, a few years after the bronze soldier set foot in Lincoln Park, is a huge equestrian statue that still stands at the Manassas National Battlefield celebrating the memory of Stonewall Jackson. It says much about the gap between history and public memory that an artist could, in the name of patriotism, design monuments to commemorate sacrifice of men like Sgt. Donnelly’s comrades in defense of their country, and to celebrate their enemy.

How America Remembers: An Introduction

He came down the stairs on the right: a man in his late-60s, or early 70s, walking slowly, with a slight stoop. He passed along the long stone slab bearing the names of the fallen from right to left, from West to East, from 1973 back in time, pausing briefly two or three times before stopping before the names for 1967. He stood there, lost in thought, for several minutes before turning and exiting up the stairs to the left.

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