Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, tourism, Vietnam War

Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials

Beckstead, Zachary, Gabriel Twose, Emily Levesque-Gottlieb, and Julia Rizzo. “Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials.” Journal of Material Culture 16, no. 2 (2011): 193-213.

In this article, the authors use the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Worcester, MA to explore how the various memorial ‘objects’ guide the way the memorial is experienced, understood, and related to. They question the socially mediated meanings inscribed or encoded in the war memorial to see how they relate to messages about the war. In particular, they examine how these material and symbolic objects evoke feelings as part of the meaning-making process.

Citing foundational memory scholars such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, the authors make the case that social and individual memories meet through interacting with forms of objectified memory as can be found in memorials and monuments. War memorials, in particular, work to perpetuate remembrance through incorporating “hard, long-lasting materials such as concrete, brick and mortar.” (195) Traditionally, war memorials emphasize themes of ‘honor’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘common good’, which offers some form of redemption and meaning for the loss of life. War memorials become sites of memory “where national and social myths are mapped and group and individual identities are created.” (196) Through pilgrimage and commemorative rituals, visitors imbue memorials with personal and social meaning.

Feelings play a large role in the meaning-making process. The authors show that even though each visitor has a personal reaction, that response is regulated through cultural quotes and symbols that are familiar to the visitor, for example, “freedom is not free.” In the case of the Vietnam War Memorial in Massachusetts, or any other memorial to the Vietnam War, society has not come to full agreement that the loss of life was worth the cost. (201) The authors then discuss the Vietnam Memorial Wall designed by Maya Lin and the public’s initial and later responses to it followed by a fuller discussion of how the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial works to make meaning.

The way the memorial is constructed enables individual identity to be subsumed within the larger socially mediated discourse, “overwhelming the perceiver, wstrengthening a culturally prescribed emotional response.” (206) The authors claim this memorial was designed to provoke a cathartic experience to allow healing. Monuments promote a particular narrative and social order, memorials offer a more therapeutic experience. (210)

Posted in 19th century America, 20th century America, African Americans, Christianity, class, immigrants, marginalization, material culture, racism, reformers, religion, sexuality, urban studies

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Heap, Chad C. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Chad Heap, author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, is an Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. His academic work examines the relationship between sexuality and the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Slumming, Heap explores how, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, affluent white Americans ventured into immigrant and mixed-race neighborhoods in order to ogle, lecture, and cavort with their social inferiors. This slumming not only created spaces that enabled middle-class whites to expand their own racial and sexual boundaries, it contributed to the emergence of a new social order where black/white and hetero/homosexual were being clearly defined. The act of slumming helped to reinforce notions of whiteness and social superiority, as did the post war exodus of whites from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Heap researched a wide range of documents, including local government records, sociological studies, novels, newspapers, and trade magazines. However, Heap claims that the most important evidence came from “the field reports of undercover investigators employed by private anti-vice organizations.” Several maps, illustrations, and photographs support the text.

Heap weaves together a variety of experiences into his definition of slumming. While many readers would readily recognize slumming as late-night dancing, drinking, and sexual exploration, Heap also includes missionary and reform activities into the mix. By adding the popular Protestant reform movements into his narrative, he shows how slumming provided middle-class white men and women with a useful way to define their own moral and social superiority. Heap shows how slumming enabled each dominant group to better define themselves: heterosexuals declared themselves against homosexuals, and whites defined themselves against blacks. In addition, even emerging populations, such as immigrant Italians and Jews, were able to use slumming to define themselves as white.

Heap’s argument differs from than Laura Wexler’s Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism; however, both books offer a fresh perspective on how whiteness (and heteronormativity) is constructed and reinforced through images of the “other.” Both books also suggest that images of domesticity play a leading role in normalizing dominant group identity. Wexler’s analysis shows that domesticity was used as a trope in actual photographs to offer evidence of civilizing Black and Indian cultures, and to downplay the violence of imperialist military endeavors. For Heap, images of domesticity can be found in the geographical containment of whites in the suburbs. The inferior other remains in the chaos and poverty of the inner city.

Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, Civil War, death, material culture, military, photographs, religion, rituals, violence

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.  She is also the first female president of Harvard University.  Faust’s latest book, This Republic of Suffering, focuses on how the massive number of deaths that occurred during the Civil War (620,000) forever changed Americans’ understanding of death and their relationship with religion.  As Reverend John Sweet noted in his 1864 sermon that asked “What is Death?”: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.”[1]  The common belief in the “Good Death” was torn apart as thousands of loved ones faced violent deaths far away from home.  Faust compares letters written by dying soldiers to conclude that “[l]etters describing soldier’s last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.”[2]  In addition to letters, Faust includes and analyzes political drawings and photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as literary works that grappled with the nation’s trauma.  Importantly, Faust shows the development of national responsibility for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of the country.

Faust does an excellent job of showing how literate white Christian Americans and their families, Union and Confederate, were affected by the war and how the nation responded to their trauma.  African Americans were not completely overlooked, but free and enslaved people’s stories were not given the same nuanced attention as those of white soldiers.  American Indian soldier’s stories were not included at all.  Faust portrays a conservative white Christian understanding of what important factors contributed to the United States as a nation during and immediately following the Civil War.  Additionally, with Faust’s major focus on deciphering meaning from letters, tales from illiterate soldiers, of any color, were omitted.  Oral history did not appear to be an included research methodology.

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 171.

[2] Ibid., 17.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, capitalism, class, gentrification, law, marginalization, material culture, racism, urban studies, violence

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Gordon, Colin. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

St. Louis, Missouri was once a thriving metropolis, but is now a ruined landscape. As Colin Gordon explains in Mapping Decline, “[d]isinvestment and depopulation are so pronounced in central St. Louis that pockets of unintended green have replaced much of the housing stock.”[1] In this book, Gordon researches and maps the causes and costs of St. Louis’s urban crisis.[2] His research shows that St. Louis’ failure was not a consequence of free market conditions, where people simply wanted a bigger or better house in the suburbs. It actually reveals how racist policies and attitudes dramatically shaped the demographic boundaries of the city. Specifically, Gordon shows how federal and local governments, as well as private industry, were complicit in maintaining segregated neighborhoods by blocking minorities from residing in white communities.

Gordon puts much of the blame on policies created by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange (SLREE). He claims that around 1915, “The fear of ‘negro invasion’ in St. Louis was best expressed, and carefully orchestrated, by local realtors.[3] They created ‘restricted deed covenants’ to prevent minorities from moving into white areas (zones). The SLREE regulated and constrained its members even where no covenants existed.”[4] Real estate agents who sold homes to African Americans outside of the zone would lose their licenses.[5] Even though restricted deed covenants were judged to not be legally enforceable by the Supreme Court in Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948, the practice continued.[6]

Furthermore, Gordon illuminates federal culpability in maintaining a segregated society. New federal policies enabled white flight from the city into the nearest suburbs. FHA mortgage insurance was primarily granted to white people moving to the suburbs, in effect, subsidizing white flight, while federal public housing assistance was implemented mainly in the inner city, which helped to solidify the region’s spatial organization of race and poverty.[7] Gordon claims that these suburbs “poached” the city’s resources while placing restrictive zoning policies on their own neighborhoods that kept out minorities.[8] In addition, during the housing boom that followed World War II, the federal government figured prominently in segregating neighborhoods through a process known as “redlining,” which essentially barred banks from investing in areas inhabited by people of color.[9] Housing and urban-renewal legislation cleared out black neighborhoods (“slum clearance”) that were perceived to threaten business districts and replaced them with public-housing projects.[10]

Mapping Decline is unique for the ways in which it combines archival research with geographic information system (GIS) digital mapping techniques.  The book includes more than 75 full-color maps that were rendered from census data, archival sources, case law, and local real estate records. Together the maps trace the ways private property restrictions, local planning and zoning, federal housing policies, and urban renewal encouraged “white flight” and urban decline in St. Louis.

The research for Mapping Decline began with a grant to apply GIS technology to the historical intersections of blight and public policy. As Gordon and his partner, Peter Fisher, wrestled with the challenge of digitizing historical sources, they soon realized that they needed a local case study. Sorting through the legal and political history of “blight,” they noticed that many of the most egregious cases were in the St. Louis suburbs. Their research revealed a general pattern found in many modern American cities, where “wealth sprawled to the urban fringe and the central city suffered stark and sustained decline.”[11] Gordon presents Mapping Decline as the St. Louis chapter of a story of urban decline that has been exposed in other studies, namely, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (1998) and Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996).[12]

Gordon created a supplementary website to the book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/). Four interactive maps that relate to major themes in the book show visitors St. Louis’ deterioration in terms of “White Flight,” “Race and Property,” “Municipal Zoning,” and “Urban Renewal.” Each map page is animated by a chronological slidebar or a menu of map layers, and includes primary source documents. Visitors to the site can see change over time within each map by moving the slidebar across different date ranges. Primary source documents, such as zoning maps, urban renewal plans, and legal documents, can be viewed by selecting the “Documents” checkbox on the map page or by selecting “Documents” from the site’s main menu. Notes about historical context and full bibliographic citations are included for each resource. In addition, the website includes a page of links to other web-based historical GIS projects, data and map sources, and St. Louis documents and maps. Unfortunately, a number of these links proved to be outdated or broken at the time of the review. One of the projects, “Digital Harlem, Daily Life 1915-1930,” could be relinked by updating the URL to http://heuristscholar.org/digital_harlem/, while others, such as “Mapping Dubois,” were not located through searches.

The “Mapping Decline: About the Maps” page offers a number of interesting data options and tools to assist further research. Researchers who are members of Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research can log in and download 1940-2000 tract level census data used in Gordon’s study. The site also offers a link to Social Explorer, which provides easy-to-use tools for visual exploration of demographic information. Gordon notes that the Race and Property, Municipal Zoning, and Urban Renewal series are based on a number of archival sources and public data, which he further explains and provides links to relevant collections. The Urban Renewal link is outdated, but a Google search located the appropriate link to St. Louis’ Open Data page, which includes census data, property information, and geospatial data.

Even though I appreciate the scholarship and ingenuity that went into Gordon’s study, and resulting book and website, I could not help but feel that the project felt isolated from larger, related social issues and lacked much needed counter narratives and personal stories. Although much different in scope and context, one example of a study that connects forced segregation with consumerism is Liz Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003). Cohen shows how the mass-consumption-driven economy offered false promises of political and economic democracy following World War II. Her study also revealed how federal policies and local racism prevented people of color from upward mobility and access to white suburbia. And Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert’s Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America (2011) shows how a set of almost invisible policing practices ban the homeless and other “disorderly” people from occupying certain public spaces. Once “zoned out,” they are subject to arrest if they return. Gordon might have connected his findings to issues, such as consumerism or the control of unwanted urban populations, that would have enriched his overall story.

Gordon also failed to provide counter narratives to the arguments and maps he presented or to personal stories that could have helped the reader connect to the lived experience of African Americans living in St. Louis. Additional research using newspaper articles, letters, or oral history interviews would have shown how people in African American communities fought against the discriminatory practices highlighted in Mapping Decline. Gordon briefly mentioned actions by the NAACP, but did not convert any of their court cases into visual data.

Even with these oversights, Gordon’s study has successfully connected to recent social and political events. In 2014, Gordon’s maps helped frame a discussion about unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the Michael Brown shooting, an event that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. On August 14, 2014, BloombergBuisinessweek published an article, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” which highlights the maps posted on Gordon’s website. The article begins with the question, “What does a map have to do with a riot?”[13] The rest of the article connects Gordon’s maps to other recent scholarship to show how a history of racism and inequitable development of the city contributed to the recent tragedy.

Gordon and his research have become authoritative resources for people all over the country who are trying to make sense of events in Ferguson and St. Louis at large. Earlier this year, Gordon became the star witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Missouri NAACP against the Ferguson-Florissant School District in North County, St. Louis. In his testimony, Gordon exclaimed that “white flight patterns moved first from the city of St. Louis into the northern suburbs in the county. Blacks became concentrated in various large apartment complexes east of West Florissant Avenue, such as those on Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was shot on Aug. 9, 2014.”[14] Gordon contends, in his book and testimony, that the city’s boundaries were drawn to keep black people out. “The seeds of that past discrimination are blooming now.”[15]

Another news article that references Gordon’s research went beyond the city’s physical restrictions to explain why white people and people of color continue to be separated psychologically. Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis underscored centuries-long white fear of African American franchise and agency with the following questions: “What would happen if the slaves revolted? If they got the right to vote? If thousands came and took our jobs? If they lived next door? If they came to the suburbs we built to get away from them? Or the suburbs we built to get away from those suburbs?”[16] This same article also suggested that any transition out of the current state of affairs would be difficult for a city that has been finding ways to control black people’s movements for hundreds of years, noting that “Today’s rules are about curfews, sagging pants, and evening protests. In the late 1770s, Spanish colonial ordinances restricted slaves from holding nocturnal assemblies, dressing ‘in barbarous fashion,’ and leaving their cabins.”[17] The parallels are eye-opening.

Seeing the connections between the historical and urgent current events in our country has given me a greater appreciation for Gordon’s book and website. As his research and news stories show, the results of systemic racism are not easily overcome. I expect that Mapping Decline will continue to contribute to this national conversation for years to come.

[1] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4.

[2] In addition to Mapping Decline, Gordon authored Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality (2013); Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (2003); and New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (1994).  His digital projects include “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/), an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research; “Digital Johnson County” (https://worldmap.harvard.edu/digitalJC/), which provides access to a wide range of map and data layers documenting the social, natural, and political history of Johnson County, Iowa; and “The Telltale Chart” (http://telltalechart.org/), a data visualization project that focuses on historical and recent economic data.

[3] Gordon, 70.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 98-99.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] Ibid., 96-97, 103-09.

[10] Ibid., 162-63.

[11] Ibid., 222.

[12] Ibid., xiii.

[13] Peter Coy, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” BloombergBusinessweek, August 15, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-15/how-st-dot-louis-countys-map-explains-fergusons-racial-discord.

[14] Tony Messenger, “Historian Highlights Racial Divide That Haunts St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/tony-messenger/messenger-historian-highlights-racial-divide-that-haunts-st-louis/article_8c83ef3c-522a-5634-b816-e10d181e4d4f.html.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera America, August 18, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/18/st-louis-segregation.html.

[17] Ibid.

Posted in 17th century America, 18th century America, 19th century America, assimilation, Christianity, class, gender studies, historiography, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, migrants, religion, urban studies

Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Brown, Kathleen M. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

In Foul Bodies, Kathleen Brown uses social and cultural history methods to reimagine five hundred years of history as a history of civilizing the body. Challenging notions that “significant historical change takes place mainly in public areas,” Brown contends that “[d]omestic life—always in dynamic relationship with public culture—is also a site of cultural production that undergoes profound historical transformation.”[1] She examines “the relationship between household practices” of cleaning bodies and “public expectations for a civilized body,” through evolving views about cleanliness, privacy, and health.[2] Her work shows that “national standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life.”[3] Brown’s research certainly was inspired by Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, which identified attitudes towards purity and pollution at the heart of every society. Whereas, Douglas’ work focused on ritual, religion, and lived experience, Brown asks important new questions related to pollution and the body, expanding the research into the realms of health, gender, class, and race relations.

Brown’s research in Foul Bodies has been cited in numerous recent works. Google Scholar identified over sixty publications. Some of the results were duplicates. Some were erroneous. Of the remaining fifty works, six are dissertations or theses, eighteen are journal articles, and the rest books. At least one book, Gretchen Long’s Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation, lists Foul Bodies in its bibliography, but does not directly cite any content. Notably, over half of the authors are women (or have names generally attributed to females). Several publications will be discussed in the upcoming paragraphs. A more complete list of works can be found in the bibliography.

Holly Dugan, in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, referred to Brown’s “linen-centered” models of cleanliness to support her argument that body odors were a reflection of one’s social position.[4] Sophie White, in Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana, discussed archaeological finds of household goods from colonial sites in the Illinois Country. She explained that “households included embroidered linen napkins and tablecloths that either someone in the household or a paid village washerwoman would have maintained using skilled and labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques.”[5] The attached footnote refers readers to Brown’s concept of “body work” in Part III of Foul Bodies without further explanation.

In Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference, Jenny Shaw explores the construction of difference through the everyday life of colonial subjects in the second half of the seventeenth century. In Chapter 1, Shaw discussed English disapproval of Irish clothing choices, which were interpreted as the “Irish preference for comfort over prestige.” Her focus in this section of the book was on a piece of clothing called a mantle: “Perhaps the real English concern with the mantle was related to its ability to conceal the sexual misconduct of Irish women, thus enabling the garment to become an easily recognized symbol of the general degeneracy of the Irish population.”[6] Shaw cited Brown’s exploration of “the language of cleanliness with regard to Moryson’s assessment of Irish barbarism.”[7] In Chapter 6, Shaw returned to the same section of Brown’s work in order to offer further support for her examples of people using poor Irish women as servants in the Caribbean to in order to demonstrate a privileged position. Shaw referred readers to Foul Bodies to learn more about the kinds of labor involved in starching and washing.[8] As Brown notes, many social factors contributed to how these tasks and who performed them are understood. “The laundress’ ability to be a mobile, independent, wage earner tarnished her reputation for chastity. . . At the end of the sixteen century, laundress and nurse were terms rife with sexual innuendo, and connoted whore and bawd.”[9]

In Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, Kathryn Meier explores how soldiers survived the conditions of war through forming universal self-care habits, including boiling water, eradicating insects, and supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables. “In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand.”[10] Meier referenced Brown’s work along with research from environmental historians who have investigated nineteenth century bodies.

In Chapter 1, Meier covers the topic of American healthcare before 1862. She explains how wealthy Southerners would travel to cooler climates to recover from illness and cited Brown’s related discussion about families traveling with ill loved ones.[11] Later in the same chapter, Meier turns to more personal aspects of recovery. She revealed class differences in her discussion about Americans having little contact with doctors, with the exception of wealthy families, who could travel for medical advice. In addition, Meier mentioned that family members, most often mothers, sisters, and wives, provided care in the home, citing Brown’s research.[12]

Common people during this era were encouraged to participate in their own health care. Many households owned domestic medicine manuals. Meier cited Brown as when she wrote, “Women often proved the dispensers of such knowledge, sometimes authoring or compiling their own recipe books of remedies.”[13] Finally, in this chapter, Meier discussed the social reform movement that advocated the belief that “water, diet, and exercise could prevent and cure most sickness,” citing multiple passages from Foul Bodies.[14]

Although this essay has delved into only a few examples of current scholarly use of Brown’s work, we can see a broad spectrum of academic research incorporating Foul Bodies.  One was just a simple reference within a history of scents. Next we saw an attempt to reconstruct a model of colonial life through understanding what “labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques” entail. Shaw’s book focused more on the social and cultural aspects that Brown’s research on laundering revealed, helping readers understand how difference is constructed. And Meier, citing multiple aspects of Brown’s research on health, introduced readers to pre-Civil War attitudes and habits of medicine.

[1] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Publication’s promotional abstract.

[4] Brown, 41; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (JHU Press, 2011), 107fn39.

[5] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 45.

[6] Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 27.

[7] Brown, 32; Shaw, 28.

[8] Brown, 31-32; Shaw, 167.

[9] Brown, 31.

[10] Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (UNC Press Books, 2013). Book’s promotional abstract.

[11] Brown, 303; Meier, 18fn12.

[12] Brown, 303, 230–31; Meier, 22fn24.

[13] Brown, 213–14; Meier, 22fn29.

[14] Brown, 290–93, 308, 16; Meier, 31fn67.

Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, civil religion, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, religion, tourism, WWI, WWII

Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire

Ebel, Jonathan H. “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire.” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 183-214.

In “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Jonathan H. Ebel examines twenty-three American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemeteries as American sacred space.[1] The cemeteries are dedicated to fallen soldiers and war workers of World Wars I and II and stand as “powerful symbols for America’s commitment to peace overseas.”[2] By first discerning the fused Christian and American symbolism and their related theologies and mythologies, which are embedded within the memorials and markers, Ebel revealed tensions between these sacred narratives and the histories they contain and conceal.

Ebel presents a concise, consistent, and coherent argument throughout the article. He opens with a quote from a sermon presented to the congregation of Astoria, Oregon’s First Methodist Church by Reverend Aaron Allen Heist on Christmas Day 1919, which compared the Christian incarnation to soldiering. Ebel infers, “Soldiers were to America as Christ was to God: the suffering, serving incarnation of the divine will.” This analogy, connecting Christ’s sacrifice to the sacrifice of the fallen soldier, can be seen throughout the article. In the first three pages, Ebel presents his main thesis, outlines the physical sites he will analyze in order to argue his points, and then explains how he will complicate his argument. His main thesis is that the ABMC intentionally developed these cemeteries as sacred space on foreign soil as a way to legitimize both Christian and American sacrifice. His arguments and evidence show how this organization accomplished their goal. Ebel’s final section explores “spatial and narrative challenges” to the ABMC’s claims of sacrality and their implications for future American sacred spaces.[3]

Ebel, who is a religious history scholar, interpreted the symbolism and landscape of ABMC’s cemeteries through primary source materials provided on their official website. Supplementary primary source materials were gathered from Stars & Stripes; a daily United States military newspaper, an unpublished manuscript written by Major General Thomas North, who served with the ABMC for over forty-five years; War Department (now the Department of Defense) reports; documents found in several archives of personal papers; and PBS’s 2009 documentary, Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries. Ebel’s secondary resources include some of the most important works in this field, which include Ed Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefelds (1993), Ed Linenthal and David Chidester’s American Sacred Space (1995), Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifce and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (1999), and Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009).

The article is divided into seven distinct sections. The first section establishes Ebel’s thesis and the intended approach to his argument. Within this section, he offers an overview to established scholarship. Section two, “Burying the Dead, American Style,” outlines the history of ABMC’s policy development for burying American soldiers on foreign soil. Ebel emphasizes two very important observations at the end of this section. First, he notes that “the ABMC marked the graves of unknown Great War soldiers with crosses or Stars of David in proportion to their rates of service, the graves of all unknown World War II soldiers—with a single exception in Manila—are marked with crosses.”[4] This assertion supports his claims that these American memorials on foreign soil increasingly act to legitimate Christian sacrifice. Second, Ebel claims that eight ABMC World War I cemeteries were dedicated twenty years after entry into the war, acting to reassert America’s greatness for “anyone—French, English, Belgian, German—who might think the American war effort unimpressive.”[5]

The next three sections offer case studies of specific ABMC cemeteries located in France: Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Normandy American Cemetery, and Suresnes American Cemetery. Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is a World War I cemetery and Normandy American Cemetery is from World War II. Suresnes American Cemetery, which houses the war dead from both wars, is unique in that it has been dedicated three times by major American voices: President Woodrow Wilson, American Ambassador to France William C. Bullitt, and General George C. Marshall.

Ebel complicates ABMC’s sacralizing mission in the sixth section, “Ideals, Bodies, and the National Sacred,” although, he moved far too quickly through this section. He mentions various examples of people buried at these sites whose stories do not fit the overarching narrative. However, I was left with more questions than answers. The article’s conclusion calls for a more expansive understanding of these cemeteries and the soldiers buried in them. Ebel points to the heroism and saintliness expounded at these site, but he notes that “the graves hold the bodies of particular people whose own narratives of war may or may not validate this saintly narrative.”[6]

It is interesting that the article appeared in Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, a journal whose mission is to “explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts.”[7] Ebel’s article does indeed focus on religious symbolism, but it strongly concentrates on nationality, government process, and the military. Searching the journal’s online portal, numerous articles that address issues of war, the military, and soldiers have been published in this journal. If I had read this article without knowing where it was published, I would not have considered this particular journal; however, after further consideration, I am not sure that a journal dedicated to military history or religious history would publish content containing a strong symbolic interpretation such as this article.

[1] According to the ABMC’s official website, they are responsible for 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 27 federal memorials, monuments and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar; three of the memorials are located within the United States. “Cemeteries & Memorials,” American Battle Monuments Commission, accessed February 1, 2017, https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials. Ebel’s research focuses on the twenty-three cemeteries that were under the ABMC’s jurisdiction as of 2012.

[2] Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries, directed by Robert Uth (PBS Home Video, 2009).

[3] Jonathan H. Ebel, “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 188.

[4] Ibid., 195-96.

[5] Ibid., 196.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Journal website: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?show=aimsScope&journalCode=rfmr20.