Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America

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In the past few decades, thousands of new memorials to executed witches, victims of terrorism, and dead astronauts, along with those that pay tribute to civil rights, organ donors, and the end of Communism have dotted the American landscape. Equally ubiquitous, though until now less the subject of serious inquiry, are temporary memorials: spontaneous offerings of flowers and candles that materialize at sites of tragic and traumatic death. In Memorial Mania, Erika Doss argues that these memorials underscore our obsession with issues of memory and history, and the urgent desire to express—and claim—those issues in visibly public contexts.

Doss shows how this desire to memorialize the past disposes itself to individual anniversaries and personal grievances, to stories of tragedy and trauma, and to the social and political agendas of diverse numbers of Americans. By offering a framework for understanding these sites, Doss engages the larger issues behind our culture of commemoration. Driven by heated struggles over identity and the politics of representation, Memorial Mania is a testament to the fevered pitch of public feelings in America today.

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Editorial Reviews

Anthropology Works
"Memorials carry enormous emotional and symbolic freight, providing clues as to how people feel about their society. This is the subject of Erika Doss’s scholarly and readable book, Memorial Mania. . . . I believe Memorial Mania will appeal to a wide audience—both inside and outside academia—given the quality of the writing and the presentation of the material. The book is packed with information and insight as it documents the growing phenomenon of memorialization in America; and 160 illustrations can only enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the subject. . . . It is a sign of the quality of Doss’ work that I am left wanting more." —Anthropology Works
American Quarterly
“With its contemporary focus and astonishingly wide range of examples, Erika Doss’s Memorial Mania…considers not simply how commemorative practices reflect the feelings of Americans, but also how commemoration has become a crucial medium through which public feeling is structured, expressed, and archived. . . . What makes Doss’s book so valuable is that it reveals the range, complexity, and depth of emotion produced by memorial acts.”
Journal of American History
“Prodigiously researched, generously illustrated. . . . Readers will come away having learned a good deal about contemporary commemoration and possessing a new awareness of the value and interest of the study of public affect.”
Architecture Boston
“[Klemek’s] study succeeds in presenting the material in a succinct and comprehensible manner that speaks to the importance of transatlantic and global communication of ideas, while underscoring the enduring nature of the local in an increasingly technical and homogenized world.”
Michelle Bogart
Memorial Mania is an important and much-needed book, one that complements the existing literature on memorials with richness and originality, and also forges new territory. Doss’s excellent and highly polemical critique of its resurgence furthers one of American studies’ most noteworthy traditions.”
American Quarterly

“With its contemporary focus and astonishingly wide range of examples, Erika Doss’s Memorial Mania…considers not simply how commemorative practices reflect the feelings of Americans, but also how commemoration has become a crucial medium through which public feeling is structured, expressed, and archived. . . . What makes Doss’s book so valuable is that it reveals the range, complexity, and depth of emotion produced by memorial acts.”—American Quarterly

Anthropology Works

"Memorials carry enormous emotional and symbolic freight, providing clues as to how people feel about their society. This is the subject of Erika Doss’s scholarly and readable book, Memorial Mania. . . . I believe Memorial Mania will appeal to a wide audience—both inside and outside academia—given the quality of the writing and the presentation of the material. The book is packed with information and insight as it documents the growing phenomenon of memorialization in America; and 160 illustrations can only enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the subject. . . . It is a sign of the quality of Doss’ work that I am left wanting more." —Anthropology Works

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226159386
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/30/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 458
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Erika Doss is professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism, also published by the University of Chicago Press, among other titles.

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Read an Excerpt

Memorial Mania

By Erika Doss


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-15938-6

Chapter One


Scope of the Subject

"The notion of the monument as memorial or commemorative public event has witnessed a triumphal return," cultural critic Andreas Huyssen observed in the mid-1990s. Reflecting on the "current obsession with memory" and what he called a "memory boom," Huyssen commented on the "surprising" contemporary resurgence of "the monument and the memorial as major modes of aesthetic, historical, and spatial expression."

No American city better embodies these conditions of memorial mania than the nation's capital. Washington has seen a glut of built and proposed memorials in the past few decades, all approved by Congress and each managed by the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the National Park Service, and / or fifteen other federal agencies claiming some degree of control over the city's built environment. Since 1995, the following memorials have been dedicated in Washington: the Pentagon Memorial (2008), Air Force Memorial (2006), National World War II Memorial (2004), George Mason Memorial (2002), Tomas G. Masaryk Memorial (2002), National Japanese American Memorial (2000), Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (1999), African American Civil War Memorial (1998), Women in Military Service for America Memorial (1997), Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997), Korean War Veterans Memorial (1995), and Lockerbie Memorial Cairn (1995). In 2007, President George W. Bush dedicated the Victims of Communism Memorial, located just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol (fig 1.1). Orchestrated by Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards, the $950,000 memorial consists of a small plaza centerpieced by a ten- foot bronze called the Goddess of Democracy, a replica of the Statue of Liberty erected by Chinese student dissidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

More memorials destined for the nation's capitol—all similarly authorized by Congress—include the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, Benjamin Banneker Memorial (commemorating an eighteenth-century African American scientist), and Adams Memorial (a memorial to the second and sixth presidents of the United States and their wives). The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial, Monument to the Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (see fig. 6.3, p. 320) are also on the lineup.

In 1986, worried that too many memorials might "get in one another's way, competing for attention among themselves and against the lanscaped beauty of the Mall," Congress passed the National Commemorative Works Act, aimed at "severely restricting" the numbers of memorials intended for the nation's capitol. Yet legislative management of public commemoration is off set by countless constituent demands for national recognition. The act's rather sweeping mandate, after all, is to promote commemorative works that evoke "the memory of an individual, group, event, or other significant element of American history." That covers a lot of territory.

Memorial mania is not just a federal issue, of course. In her study of monuments and memory in Lowell, Massachusetts, Martha Norkunas documented some 252 memorials erected in that northeastern textile town since the mid-nineteenth century. More than 65 were erected in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

This dramatic increase in memorial numbers is explained in part by expanded understanding of commemoration itself. American memorials are as protean today as their American patrons and publics, and range from multi-acred properties like the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center to single monuments like the David Berger National Memorial in Beachwood, Ohio, an abstract sculpture dedicated to an American athlete killed during terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics. From permanent memorials intended as timeless national fixtures to temporary shrines erected at the sites of school shootings and car accidents, contemporary kinds of commemoration include plaques, parks, cairns, quilts (the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt), trees (the seven oaks planted at the Johnson Space Center in tribute to the crew of the Columbia space shuttle), and Web sites (there are thousands of online memorials to the victims of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Virginia Tech shootings, among others).

By extension, today's "obsession with memory" and memorials is grounded in a vastly expanded U.S. demographic and in heightened expectations of rights and representation among the nation's increasingly diverse publics. As the following overview details, memorial mania is contextualized by a highly successful public art industry, burgeoning interests in "memory studies" and "living" or experiencing history, and shifting understanding of American national identity. In particular, memorial mania embodies the affective dimensions—the structures of public feeling—that characterize contemporary life. And as Huyssen alludes in his comments on the "triumphal return" of commemoration, today's memory boom has precedence in an earlier historical moment when monuments and notions of the monumental similarly dominated public art and public culture.


Today's memorial mania parallels the "statue mania" that gripped nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Americans and Europeans alike. In France, historian Maurice Agulhon explains, "statueomania" was especially realized in countless memorials to "Marianne," a feminized symbol of revolution and liberty. Determined to unite the French body politic around a consensual national mythology, Third Republic patriots unleashed an army of Marianne memorials in public squares throughout France in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. They also stirred a "patriotic fervor" for laudatory statues of local and national French figures from Louis Pasteur and Denis Diderot to Berlioz, Danton, and Voltaire. In 1870, there were fewer than a dozen statues of "great men" in Paris; by 1914, there were over 150. Statue mania, the monumental impulse of France's Third Republic, was "an inherent feature of modern urbanism and liberal and secular society," Agulhon remarks, and the parallel processes of forging the modern French nation-state and raising statues were seen as one and the same.

Statue mania erupted in the United States from the 1870s to the 1920s for similar reasons. After the divisiveness of the Civil War, countless American cities and towns vied for statues (and other symbolic markers) that helped reimagine what Benedict Anderson terms the "affective bonds of nationalism." Statues not only embellished the postbellum public landscape but encouraged passionate and consensual understandings of nationhood. Frederick MacMonnies's Pioneer Monument (1911) in Denver, Colorado, for example, a multi-tiered fountain featuring an equestrian statue of Kit Carson and other figures labeled "The Hunter," "The Prospector," and "Pioneer Mother and Child," promoted a national history defined by manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, and heteronormative family values (fig. 1.2). Commissioned by a Denver real estate outfit as a tribute to Colorado's first territorial governor, MacMonnies's original design featured a statue of a naked Indian on horseback, "his palm extended in a gesture of peace." But Denver newspapers angrily objected, contending that Colorado "has no love for the savage redskin" and that the sculptor's decision to depict a Native American was a "sad mistake." MacMonnies revised his plans, substituting a fully-clothed figure of Kit Carson for the Indian, and the $72,000 monument was dedicated in Denver's Civic Center Park in a ceremony attended by some ten thousand people.

Likenesses of American explorers, inventors, statesmen, and soldiers were commonly commissioned in the era of statue mania, as were "great men" valorized by different Anglo- European ethnic groups. Baltimore, nicknamed "the Monumental City" in the early nineteenth century, was dotted with memorials to men ranging from George Washington and Edgar Allen Poe to Thomas Wildey (founder of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in North America) and John Mifflin Hood (president of the Western Maryland Railway). Cleveland's Cultural Gardens, a narrow strip of urban parkland first developed in the 1910s, was outfitted with statues, busts, and plaques commemorating the city's Czech, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Russian literary and musical legends. Staking their own claims to America's historical memory, civic groups elsewhere erected memorials to founding fathers like Leif Erikkson (sculpted by Anne Whitney for the cities of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Needham, Massachusetts in 1887), Thaddeus Kosciusko (Boston, 1899; West Point, 1913), Giuseppe Garibaldi (New York, 1888), and Sam Houston (Houston, 1924).

Christopher Columbus was statue mania's most popular "great man." As early as 1849, Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton proposed that the forthcoming transcontinental railroad be commemorated by a colossal statue of Columbus "hewn from a granite mass or a peak on the Rocky Mountains ... pointing with outstretched arm to the western horizon, and saying to the flying passengers—'There is the East; there is India.'" (Although never built, Benton's grandiose scheme surely sparked Gutzon Borglum's similarly ostentatious interest in carving memorials like Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore.) Hundreds of other Columbus monuments, statues, busts, and fountains were built in other cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Columbus, New Haven, New York, Peoria, Providence, Sacramento, Scranton, St. Louis, and Willimantic, all of them honoring the four hundredth anniversary of the Italian explorer's "discovery" of America. In 1912, Lorado Taft's Columbus Memorial Fountain was erected in front of Washington's Union Station, and dedicated in an elaborate civic ceremonhy that the New York Times said was "second only to the inauguration of a President" (fig. 1.3). Over 150,000 spectators listened to an address by President William Howard Taft and watched a parade of 15,000 troops, 2,000 cars, 50,000 Knights of Columbus, and numerous floats depicting notable moments in Columbus's life.

Statue mania was not unique to the nation's white ethnics: postbellum black communities were also deeply engaged in what the Washington Bee, an African American weekly, called "monument fever" in 1889. Local and national drives (not all of them successful) to erect memorials to African Americans such as William C. Nell, Crispus Attucks (honored with a statue in Boston Common in 1888), Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass (Rochester, New York, 1899), Harriet Tubman (Auburn, New York, 1914), and John Mercer Langston were frequently covered in the Bee. The newspaper's editor, W. Calvin Chase, was an avid memorial enthusiast who as early as 1883 had pushed for a monument that would honor black Civil War veterans and "be erected at government expense in the nation's capital." While a bill to support it was introduced in Congress a few years later, such a monument would not be built until 1998, when the African American Civil War Memorial, featuring Ed Hamilton's Spirit of Freedom was dedicated in Washington (see fig. 4.28, on p. 231).

Thousands of war memorials erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries paid tribute to America's soldier dead and reified a national ideology of militarism and masculinity. Most were produced by a burgeoning commercial monument industry that provided mass-produced memorials to muncipalities all over the country. In the fifty years following the Civil War, for example, northern and southern cities purchased "standing soldier" statues of Union or Confederate warriors: common soldiers, generally lone infantrymen, standing on top of stone columns and grasping a rifle. Selecting stock examples from catalogues published by companies like the Armes Foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts, or the Muldoon Monument Company in Louisville, Kentucky. Civic associations such as the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 for the Civil War statue of their choice. In 1870, the Colored Women's Lincoln Aid Society of Philadelphia laid the cornerstone for a proposed $2,000 "monument to those [black soldiers and sailors] who fell fighting to perpetuate our glorious Union."

In the early 1900s, many U.S. cities purchased stock statues of Spanish American War soldiers, called "hiker statues" after the animated march of American troops up Cuba's San Juan Hill. In the 1920s, they spent their civic dollars on "fighting doughboy" memorials depicting rifle-thrusting World War I infantrymen seemingly lifted from the European trenches of the western front. Ernest Moore Viquesney, who made funerary monuments for commercial firms in Georgia and Indiana, was one of several American sculptors who designed World War I memorials and produced hundreds of fighting doughboy statues for cities ranging from North Canaan, Connecticut, to Beaver, Utah (fig. 1.4). Each of Viquesney's bronzes, which cost $2,000 to $5,000 and were called Spirit of the American Doughboy, featured a seven-foot soldier boldly striding through a no-man's-land of barbed wire and shelled tree stumps, hoisting a bayonet in one hand and a grenade in the other. Capitalizing on their popular appeal during the era of statue mania, Viquesney also marketed $6 fighting doughboy statuettes ("endorsed and recommended by the National Memorial Committee of The American Legion"), desk lamps, and candlesticks.

Other cities boasted the individually commissioned and much more expensive memorials of sculptors such as MacMonnies, Taft, Daniel Chester French, and Augustus Saint- audens—professional artists who saw themselves as the cultural custodians of American taste and viewed their statues as ways to educate the public about "official" and hence appropriate national histories and ideals. As John Bodnar argues, "Official culture relies on 'dogmatic formalism' and the restatement of reality in ideal rather than complex or ambiguous terms ... Cultural leaders, usually grounded in institutional and professional structures, envisioned a nation of dutiful and united citizens ... and never tired of using commemoration to restate what they thought the social order and citizen behavior should be." Statues played a vital role in championing collective national ideals, as did a widespread public culture of national anthems, holidays, festivals, and fairs.

French's The Concord Minuteman, for example, a life-sized bronze of an alert Yankee farmer ready to do battle with the British at a moment's notice, was unveiled in 1875 in Concord, Massachusetts, at a Revolutionary War centennial celebration (fig. 1.5). A replica was displayed a year later at Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition, a world's fair attended by some ten million people who saw, among other memorials, the gigantic arm of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France that would be dedicated in New York in 1886. The Pledge of Allegiance, a ritualistic act of fealty to the U.S. flag ("and the Republic for which it stands") was written in 1893. It was popularized that year at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a world's fair that while ostensibly a tribute to Christopher Columbus was mostly a monumental spectacle of renewed national self-confidence and a proclamation of America's late nineteenth-century technological innovations, cultural ambitions, and global economic leadership.

These commemorative cultures aimed at evoking intimate, emotional, and authentic ties between different American publics and the United States, encouraging an affective allegiance to the nation that would be as strong and as sacred as that extended to family, region, religion, and / or ethnic and racial group. Naming practices—such as listing the names of the nine thousand Cuyahoga County residents who served in the Civil War on the walls of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument (Cleveland, Ohio, 1894)—were further employed to generate shared feelings of nationalism.

Statue mania was symptomatic of turn-of-the-twentieth-century anxieties about national unity, anxieties unleashed by the rapid advance of modernism, immigration, and mass culture. Cultural efforts to assuage those anxieties included, among other things, reordering the nation's urban landscapes. From New York to Cleveland to San Diego, urban America was revamped in an idealized "City Beautiful" aesthetic that appropriated Greco-Roman and other styles in order to evoke Progressive Era political ideals. Grand boulevards, spacious squares, and manicured parks were centerpieced by oversized statues—like Denver's Pioneer Monument—that promoted "official" cultural perceptions of national values and virtues as they simultaneously belied the sociopolitical frictions that mandated their making in the first place. Many newly revised urban spaces became the staging grounds for highly ritualized civic festivals like "The Pageant and Masque of St. Louis" (1914), which was performed in St. Louis's Forest Park by a 7,500 person cast and viewed by an audience of some 350,000 people. Featuring costumed processions of American ethnics and newly naturalized citizens, these carefully choreographed "Dramas of Democracy" rarely critiqued the terms of civic inclusion or how and why "other" Americans were often excluded from national subjectivity (like much of St. Louis's African American population). Similar sorts of social, political, and cultural anxieties undergird memorial mania today.


Excerpted from Memorial Mania by Erika Doss Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures



1. Statue Mania to Memorial Mania: Scope of the Subject

2. Grief: Temporary Memorials and Contemporary Modes of Mourning

3. Fear: Terrorism Memorials and Security Narratives

4. Gratitude: Memorializing World War II and the "Greatest Generation"

5. Shame: Duluth’s Lynching Memorial and Issues of National Morality

6. Anger: Contesting American Identity in Contemporary Memorial Culture



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