Memorials Matter: Emotion, Environment and Public Memory at American Historical Sites

Memorials Matter: Emotion, Environment and Public Memory at American Historical Sites

by Jennifer K Ladino


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943859962
Publisher: University of Nevada Press
Publication date: 02/06/2019
Edition description: 1
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 456,561
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Jennifer Ladino is an author and associate professor of English at the University of Idaho, where she specializes in American literature and the environmental humanities.

Read an Excerpt

I can still picture the tattered scrap of paper my National Park Service (NPS) supervisor had thumbtacked to her gray cubicle wall:
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.1

These inspirational lines from John Muir’s Our National Parks were a favorite among rangers I worked with, if a bit too saccharine for my tastes. My twenty-­something self had chosen the wry prose of Edward Abbey to grace my own gray cubicle wall. I found it refreshing to re-­read his polemic about letting tourists take risks (like getting “lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, [and] buried alive by avalanches”) and, more happily, letting park rangers range,2 while I hammered out press releases, designed employee newsletters, or planned for special events — from behind my desk. During my thirteen seasons working for the NPS in Grand Teton National Park, I “ranged” whenever I could. As I hiked and climbed all over the Tetons, I felt the peace, freshness, energy, and carefree mood Muir had championed. I wanted park visitors to feel those things, too, and to appreciate firsthand the mysterious ways that the more-­than-human world acts upon us — ways that researchers today are beginning to understand much better than when Muir was adventuring in the Yosemite Valley.
Romantic though they may be, Muir’s words anticipate one of my goals for this book: to consider how the physical environment makes people feel things, how it shapes the “flows” of peace and many other affects at NPS sites. Memorials Matter is not about big-­ticket destinations like the Tetons or Yosemite National Park, which rely mainly on striking natural beauty and recreational opportunities to draw crowds. This book is about Western memorials where education, rather than recreation, is the main attraction. When it comes to memorials, everyone’s a critic; that is, nearly everyone I spoke with about this project had a favorite memorial I simply must include. Seldom are those favorites in the American West. Civil War battlefields in the South are popular suggestions, as are the 9/11 Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and others in big East Coast cities. So why the West? For one thing, the region has long been tied to national identity, and in a book about public memory, national identity is very much at stake. For another, considering the West’s signature environments — its open spaces, vast deserts, towering mountain ranges, lush coasts, and idyllic islands — adds a new dimension to the study of public memory.

Memorials serve a range of functions. Most are meant to be redemptive in some way: to confront loss, trauma, or violence; to provide healing for those involved; and, sometimes, to promote justice for the victims. Jay Winter describes a memory site as a “moral message” in material form.3 More recently, Erika Doss explains how memorials in the United States have increasingly become places of contestation, “subject to the volatile intangibles of the nation’s multiple publics and their fluctuating interests and feelings.”4 Many memorials today are designed to bring previously silenced voices to the fore or to promote cultural pluralism. But do they succeed? And if so, what is the role of the physical environment — both natural and built — in shaping our feelings at these “archives of public affect”? 5

With these questions in mind, I visited selected sites managed by the NPS, the agency that paid and housed me through thirteen of my best summers and inspired my research in ways I didn’t anticipate at the time. More importantly, it’s an agency with a huge responsibility for narrating the intense history of the U.S., and so, for managing the relationship between public memory and national identity. I initially wanted to constrain my study to war memorials, but I worried this narrow designation would limit the range of sites I could access. I soon realized, however, that if I thought instead about conflict then the designation wasn’t narrow at all. Nearly every landscape in the West bears witness to, and contains physical traces of, historical conflict. There was no way, in a project like mine, to catalogue all the wars and other forms of violence that mark the region’s history. Confining my data set to Western memorials run by the NPS was a way of keeping the scope manageable, and it worked, although I quickly learned how complicated the category of “memorial” can be.

While the NPS uses “park” as a catch-all word for the more than 400 sites it manages, I claim “memorial” for my umbrella term. The NPS loosely defines a memorial as “commemorative of a historic person or episode.”6 “Memorial” also tends to be the colloquial choice for sites of national significance that commemorate trauma, as most of those in my study do.7 In a broad sense, then, the label fits for all the sites in this book: three national historic sites, two national memorials, one national monument, and a national recreation area. But even sites that share an official designation — for instance, the relatively obscure Coronado National Memorial and the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial — don’t necessarily have much else in common. And in some cases, as with Mount Rushmore, it’s not clear why “memorial” is the right word at all.

Although “memorial” and “monument” are often used interchangeably in popular discourse, they mean different things. At some sites in the West, the landscape itself is deemed “monumental” because of its extraordinary size and beauty. More often, monuments refer to built structures on a grand scale (think Washington Monument), which tend to (but don’t always) celebrate dominant national narratives and reinscribe official histories.8 Memorials, by contrast, can be as simple as a plaque and tend to mark sites of grief or trauma. Memorials recognize a messier past and give expression to American publics that are “diverse and often stratified.”9 With increasing attention to identity politics, the trend in American commemorative culture has been toward memorials. Some monuments contain memorials, as is the case with WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which encompasses the USS Arizona Memorial. And some memorials contain monuments: Coronado National Memorial includes several obelisks that function as monuments marking the U.S.-Mexico border. In short, it’s complicated. I make it a priority to be clear about my own terminology in each chapter.

The NPS has a challenging job. The agency was formed and began managing natural and cultural resources in 1916, and attention to the latter has increased substantially since then. Its responsibility for public lands is vast, not only in terms of the types of national sites it manages — now including wild and scenic rivers, scenic trails, historical parks, parkways, lakeshores, and seashores, among others — but also in terms of the amount of total land area in the system, which has doubled since 1973.10 The fact that the NPS is not supposed to have a political agenda — uniformed rangers are prohibited from talking about politics or even so much as recommending local restaurants — also makes it an interesting case study. Not only do NPS managers have to negotiate a contradictory mission dedicated to both enjoyment and preservation, but NPS employees are also supposed to practice an ideological and political neutrality intended to ensure democratic access for all visitors.11

Still, the NPS wants to engage visitors emotionally as well as intellectually.12 Even if the agency’s neutrality means its staff can’t tell us exactly how we should feel, emotions themselves are never neutral. The NPS manages more than just natural and cultural resources, then: It also manages affects. One goal of Memorials Matter is to flesh out those feelings. Terry Tempest Williams pursues something similar in her book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, a project that explores the value of parks at the agency’s centennial anniversary. She asks: “What are [park visitors] searching for and what do we find?”13 My own answer to this question is in some ways similar to hers: “perhaps it is not so much what we learn that matters in these moments of awe and wonder, but what we feel in relationship to a world beyond ourselves, even beyond our own species.”14 I am less focused on moments of “awe and wonder” than Williams is, though. Some of the landscapes in my project are quite subtle, not awesome or wondrous in the way the nation’s most dramatic parks (and many of its earliest public lands) typically are.

I thought I might be able to detect a singular NPS tourist affect, a mood that remains more or less consistent across NPS-­managed sites. For one thing, most tourists are on vacation, so aren’t we predisposed to enjoy ourselves, or at least to bring a certain carefree mood to our travels? What other common affective ground might there be among NPS visitors? Is NPS tourism a genre? Does it have a grammar? 15 Are there affective stages — perhaps a progression from inquisitiveness to horror (or grief, or anger) and contemplation to catharsis — one is supposed to go through at sites of tragedy, like Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site or the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor? 16 What about at others, like Golden Spike National Historic Site, which are mainly celebratory? Could I come up with a grand theory of NPS tourist emotions, something like the stages of grief made famous by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-­Ross,17 which applies across a range of memory sites?

As intriguing as such a model might be, the reality of commemoration is much more complex. In exploring a diverse group of landscapes and an array of NPS designations, I’ve discovered that awe and wonder are only two among a wide range of affects that happen at sites of public memory. In fact, awe or wonder inspired by a landscape might actually detract from the commemorative experience we’re meant to have at a memorial. I suspect that even at the most sublime parks — like Grand Teton National Park, a beloved favorite of both mine and Williams’s — awe and wonder can be elusive. Crowds, construction, or other frustrations can stand in the way during high tourist season. Or, we stand in our own ways, preoccupied with sending texts, taking selfies, reading roadside displays, or looking for the nearest coffee vendor. As I argued in my first book, Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature, most visitors are technological tourists: We come equipped with GPS devices, cell phones, headsets, and Fitbits.18 We visit video rivers, go on e-­hikes, and take headset tours. Most visits to national parks these days start online, with third-­nature representations and virtual texts ranging from the official narratives and images on the NPS website to a friend’s snapshots on Instagram and a stranger’s video on YouTube. We prepare. We learn about the area. We chart our course. We make reservations. We create a checklist of things to see. All this preparation predisposes us to encounter the site in a particular way — the way laid out for us by these texts.

But that predisposition is only one facet of the experience, and it can change. A lot can happen on the way to a destination, for starters. Kids fight in cars, souring a family’s collective mood. Couples bicker about directions or other logistics. (As an entrance station ranger, I was once asked to settle an argument about what the “white stuff” in the mountains was. I politely declined.) The onslaught of information at visitor centers, roadside signs and plaques, local towns peddling souvenirs and ice cream cones, and the company of other people (either the ones we brought with us or those we encounter for the first and probably only time at the site) all influence visitors’ experiences. With so many factors involved, it’s safe to say that what we feel at a memorial site is hardly ever what we prepared for.

Still, it is possible to say something about what happens affectively at these sites of memory. Reclaiming Nostalgia grew out of my NPS experiences and my corresponding desire to analyze the literary and cultural uses of nostalgia, including the more politically progressive ones. Memorials Matter picks up where that book left off in its attention to tourists’ emotional responses to nature, but this project features a focused emphasis on NPS sites, a wider range of affects, and a larger theoretical toolbox. I draw on affect theory across the spectrum, from cultural theory to cognitive science, to ask things like: What kinds of narratives about the West, and the nation, do landscapes convey? What affects and emotions do the natural and built environments at memorial sites encourage? What happens when these affects are in tension with what a site’s written texts recommend? To answer these sorts of questions, I think we have to learn to talk in clearer and more nuanced ways about affect and emotion, and about the physical environments at these sites. I hope to model that clarity and nuance in what follows.

I’ve placed environments at the center of my project by organizing the book around type of landscape. Together, the chapters emphasize the ways in which a desert, or a mountain range, or an island, or a coast, or a national border, shapes how public memory feels. All landscapes are, like national parks, “discursive apparatuses”19 through which politics are negotiated at local, regional, national, and international scales. Landscapes impact how visitors react to NPS sites at least as much as the written rhetoric and other overt attempts to regulate tourists’ experiences. But unlike other “display technologies”20 — including park brochures (known as “site bulletins”), designated overlooks, and the various interpretive tools at visitor centers — landscapes have an unruly, unpredictable influence on tourists who visit these sites. Along with landscapes, I look at the built environment, including structures that appear finite and stable, to see how these features can work against the NPS’s goals, complicating, or even contradicting, the written rhetoric.

As tourists, our bodies are carefully managed along with the natural resources NPS sites celebrate and enclose. My own body is no exception, which makes accounting for my corporeal experience a methodological necessity. I don’t presume to write about the visitor experience. I focus instead on how each site constructs what I call an “implied tourist,” a subject position I often, but don’t always, fit. Like Wayne Booth’s implied reader, the “bearer of the codes and norms presumed in [a text’s] readership,”21 the implied tourist is the visitor to whom memorials and their managers direct their rhetoric, the audience the visual and written rhetoric anticipates. Assuming that the implied tourist to Coronado National Memorial would not have read extensively on the history of the Coronado Expedition, for example, I did minimal research before visiting the sites. I think this helped me be more attuned to the mixed, even contradictory affects that are not only represented in a site’s visual and written rhetoric but also, in a sense, communicated by the environment itself. What I found is that often the textual and environmental registers of affect are in tension with one another, and those tensions are instructive to map out.

Of course, an actual tourist interacts with a site in all kinds of ways that deviate from the ideal, or “authentic,”22 NPS-­constructed experience. I cannot possibly account for all of those ways. A particular challenge in this project has been how to deal with the fact that a veteran, or a Japanese descendant of an internee, or an Indigenous member of a tribe that was expelled from what’s now an NPS site or whose ancestors were killed there, would no doubt react much differently than I did. Where possible, I draw on firsthand accounts. I also turn to literature. While I acknowledge the limitations of my own experiences in the West — and the limitations of the white male nature writers (like Muir and Abbey) who initially framed my own relationship to the region — my chapters reflect the region’s diverse inhabitants, including American Indians as well as people of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and African descent.

A more explicitly environmentally justice-­oriented project than mine might focus on historical and ongoing injustices with which the NPS is associated, such as Indian expulsion, racial segregation, and sexual harassment.23 But it’s the present-­day sites and how they shape tourists’ emotions, not the agency itself, that concern me here. My aim is neither to romanticize nor to condemn the NPS, though I do reflect on its future and its “rogue” branch, the Alt-­NPS, in this book’s postscript. Memorials Matter takes up Margret Grebowicz’s call, in The National Park to Come, for a “new cartography of affects” at NPS sites, beyond the spectacular and historically exclusive “wilderness affect.”24 I hope that drawing attention to the politics of public affects makes a small contribution to much larger anti-­racist and decolonial projects, and that the theoretical framework I lay out will be useful in future studies of affect in NPS sites (and other environments) that continue to grapple with these important issues.25

I’ve attempted to combine affect theory, a notoriously dense interdisciplinary body of work that appeals primarily, if not exclusively, to academics, with what ecocritics call narrative scholarship: a type of research-­based writing that integrates personal stories and is meant to reach a wider audience. This unconventional hybrid approach was a challenge, but I took inspiration from Kathleen Stewart’s evocative ethnographic approach in Ordinary Affects and from Rebecca Solnit’s “passionate impurity.”26 Intellectually as well as stylistically, my foundations are shaky: the categories of analysis in this study — landscape, place, affect, public memory, built environment — are big, shifty ones, which I unpack in the introduction but can’t finally pin down. Like Williams, I’ve approached my project with “humility”27 and an openness to what Jane Bennett calls “moments of methodological naivete,” in which critique is postponed in order to be more perceptive in the present.28 I tried, as Bennett recommends, to “cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it,” a process I agree is an “ethical task.”29 For me, this perceptual openness meant letting my intellectual guard down and allowing myself to be surprised by how each memorial site affected me. Some of the arguments in the chapters struck me immediately while I was there; others emerged after much reflection. None was exactly what I expected. If we listen and look for it, the matter at memorials tells us how to feel, and it is insistent in its calls for our ethical attention. Beyond memorials, I hope the insights in this study apply more broadly to our everyday environments.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction: Feeling Like a Mountain: Scale, Patriotism, and Affective Agency at Mount Rushmore National Memorial 1

1. “Fears Made Manifest”: Desert Creatures and Border Anxiety at Coronado National Memorial 41

2. Placing Historical Trauma: Guilt, Regret, and Compassion at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site 82

3. Performing Patriotism: Reenactment, Historicity, and Thing-Power at Golden Spike National Historic Site 121

4. Remembering War in Paradise: Grief, Aloha, and Techno-patriotism at WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument 157

5. Mountains, Monuments, and other Matter: Reckoning with Racism and Simulating Shame at Manzanar National Historic Site 195

6. “We have died. Remember us.”: Fear, Wonder, and Overlooking the Buffalo Soldiers at Golden Gate National Recreation Area 227

Postscript: Going Rogue with the Alt-NPS: Managing Love and Hate for an Alternative Anthropocene 261

Acknowledgments 275

Bibliography 277

Index 287

About the Author 297

What People are Saying About This

Heather Houser

“In Ladino’s study, national parks are sites of emotional friction and emotional discovery…For the parks lover and ecocritic alike, Ladino’s book informs and guides.”

Nicole Seymour

“From Pearl Harbor to Manzanar, Jennifer Ladino’s Memorials Mattershows us how the physical environments of U.S. national memory sites foster affective responses and politicized action. Deploying first-person narrative scholarship and drawing on her experience as a former park ranger, Ladino makes unique and accessible contributions to material ecocriticism, affect studies, and national park studies. As threats to the U.S. national park system continue to proliferate alongside resurgent white nationalisms, Memorials Matterproves a timely and necessary work.”

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