Every culture makes monuments and memorials. These days Americans may be making more of them, and faster, than ever. It says a lot about any people what they choose to identify as important, and how they do it. Of course, what is left out, or transformed in the telling, or downright misrepresented says at least as much, even if that’s a little harder to find. But don’t worry, I’m here to help. Here in Washington, DC we have an immense number of monuments and are building more ever faster. But are they ones we want or need?
In 1800, Congressman John Nicholas of Virginia spoke out in Congress against the movement to create a colossal equestrian monument to George Washington. Instead, he proposed installing over Washington’s tomb “A plain tablet on which every man could write what his heart dictated…It was not to be blazoned by figures or representations of any sort.” Of course, the Washington Monument that was eventually erected is something quite different. But the desire to create a monument largely free of external preaching, engaging each viewer’s own preconceptions and needs remains a powerful force, embodied in different ways by the Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Most of our monuments are far more preachy, demanding of the viewer a certain interpretation, but none can fully escape their viewer’s questioning gaze, at least not without risking total irrelevance. In this site, I have chosen about two dozen monuments that run the gamut of positions of monument building in Washington.
First of all, there is just the sheer chance of who is deemed worthy and how. We have sites dedicated to Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, LBJ and all those guys, of course, but also Sonny Bono, Olive Risley Seward (the adopted daughter of Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and Oscar Straus (the first Jewish cabinet member). The only artists of any kind with longstanding monuments are the (underwhelming) Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, and American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Our native son Duke Ellington (certainly one of the greatest of American artists) has only just recently emerged in a sculpture, as has John Philip Sousa. Meanwhile, an obscure choice of Walt Whitman’s words are largely ignored above the Dupont Circle Metro entrance where they are carved. Of scientists we have only the foreign-born Albert Einstein and Julius Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. If you’re looking for the country of Robert Frost or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jackson Pollock, or any of our matchless scientific institutions or figures, you won’t find it visible in Washington (even though Washington’s public spaces have been sites of important scientific and technological breakthroughs, starting with Alexander Graham Bell).
But what of the numerous monuments we do have? We call Washington, DC “Our Nation’s Capitol” with pride or rueful irony but somehow all agree that what it displays is more than itself, but a metaphor for us, whoever we are. The builders of Washington’s monuments certainly agree, and have provided a vast array of structures that don’t just reflect but work very hard to tell us, often to decide for us, who we are. If the people portrayed in the monuments of Washington precisely represented America, we would conclude that America consists entirely of men (with few exceptions beside a slew of symbolic and mostly nude women: Joan of Arc, two actual people, Ms. Seward and Mary McLeod Bethune, as well as a cameo by Eleanor Roosevelt in her husband’s monument). That is perhaps changing. We would also assume it is almost entirely white, except for Mrs. Bethune, Martin Luther King and some unnamed slaves and soldiers. And if it is at all gay or queer or transgendered it knows how to hide itself and pass perfectly as straight. This does not mean the monuments do not speak to us, but that our relation is complicated like any family, and especially the vast, diverse, extended and sometimes troubled one that is America.
With all this in mind, I have chosen two dozen or so of my favorites that might show us more than we expect about America.
SEE THE MAPS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE HOMEPAGE. YOU CAN CLICK ON ANY ICON TO GO TO A PARTICULAR MONUMENT. FROM THERE, YOU CAN CLICK ON THE PHOTOS TO SEE THE MONUMENT OR THE LINK TO READ MY COMMENTS ON IT.