According to Erika Doss, professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the U.S. has a historical obsession with monumentalizing and memorializing important events and people. Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, this fixation focused on statues and monuments. Over time, with multiple viewpoints of the same history becoming more and more welcomed in the public eye, these monumental statues morphed into abstract or utilitarian memorials. Yet the cultural obsession with the physical actualization of official memory remains.
In Memorial Mania, Doss divides her in-depth analysis of the nature of public memory into the five emotional states that today’s memorials seek to address: grief, fear, gratitude, shame, and anger. For each emotional category, she chooses a handful of exemplary monuments, explaining their artistic and sociological relevance. Doss claims that grief is best represented in temporary memorials of teddy bears and cards left at sites of car crashes, explosions, and random acts of violence. Fear is best exemplified by several recent 9/11 memorials, in which victims are proclaimed martyrs and a nationalistic solidarity rises against an elusive or intangible enemy. Gratitude can be seen in the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, with its emphasis on military apotheosis and victory over “the forces of evil.” Shame appears in memorials to Native Americans, African Americans, and other minority groups deeply wronged by society. Anger represents a smaller and more peripheral category, which includes vandalism to monuments and memorials considered inappropriate—like those to Conquistadors or Columbus, for example.
While Doss’s analysis of these categories and the memorials that fit into them is fascinating, I couldn’t help but notice that she is pushing a political agenda. Although she doesn’t say it explicitly, the reader is left with the impression that all American memorials (with the exception of the Vietnam Memorial and perhaps a handful of others) are not only nationalistic in nature, but just plain bad, both aesthetically and in the messages they seek to convey. In other words, it appears that Doss is almost against the building of memorials on principal. On a note of style, Doss’s ceaseless use of the word “affect” does more harm than good to her explanations. But the main problem with Doss’s argument is that she fails to explain why this obsession with memorials is somehow unique to the U.S. Although she does reference memorials in other places in the world (the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and Soviet realism in the USSR, for example), these comparisons are few and far between, and the reader is left to wonder whether or not the case for a specifically American obsession is truly substantiated.
Apart from these criticisms, Memorial Mania is very well researched and contains many interesting and original evaluations of some of the most well-known (and not so well-known) monuments. If nothing else, it serves as a good reference book for recent public art and memorials in the United States.
Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America
by Erika Doss
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010
488 pages, 161 halftones, $35.00