Howells in the News: On Civil War Monuments

An alternative history of American Civil War monuments

In the spring of 1866, William Dean Howells wondered what monuments to the American Civil War would look like. Howells, who later became the celebrated ‘Dean’ of American literary realism, had served as American Consul in Venice for the war’s duration, and his hopes for commemorative statuary in the triumphant North betray the remove from which he experienced the war’s emotional and physical ferocity. His vision was progressive and productive: instead of mourning the dead, he contended, public monuments to the war should have the power to reform the communities that encountered them.

With the full force of northern victory and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation behind him, he told the readers of the Atlantic Monthly that ‘[t]he idea of our war seems to have interpreted itself to us all as faith in the justice of our cause, and in our immutable destiny, as God’s agents, to give freedom to mankind; and the ideas of our peace are gratitude and exultant industry.’ Commemorating war from a position of peace, he maintained, involved building on the war’s gains rather than dwelling on its devastation and losses; in proving their ‘right to citizenship’ in a Union freshly dedicated to freedom, commemorative architecture and sculpture must prove ‘themselves adequate to express something of the spirit of the new order we have created here’.

Howells’ suggestive invocation of the new ‘rights to citizenship’ granted to emancipated and self-emancipated African Americans drives his point home: to earn their place in the post-war public sphere, monuments to the war must work collectively to bring the ‘new order’ declared by the Emancipation Proclamation into being. [read the rest at the link to Apollo Magazine.]


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