June 30, 2004

Kitsch memorials

With the death of Ronald Reagan, there were the inevitable "what is his place in history?" gabfests as well as proposals to put his name or face on everything from the $20 bill to Mount Rushmore. What was missing in the latter was a sense of perspective about memorial acts and sites as public events and places. We tend to think only of the monumental memorials and fail to look at memorialization in a systematic fashion. Who wants to think about the ironies in having New Jersey Turnpike stops named after Walt Whitman and Joyce Kilmer?

Maybe Kilmer deserved his, and the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop provides a great line for teachers forever more: "If you produce trite claptrap, your name may be more familiar to schoolkids for being on the New Jersey Turnpike than for what you've written." And when some people were upset that PATCO union-buster Reagan's name was attached to Washington's National Airport, I kidded that it was perfect: "Millions of passengers will associate his name with the white-knuckle flights over the District. It's how I felt for eight years; it's a unique form of public history."

But we should look at memorials more seriously, I think. (Yes, this would be a great dissertation or book topic in popular culture studies.) They are not just the austere Vietnam memorial, or the august sitting Lincoln in his memorial. They include everything from the tacky Mount Rushmore to postal stamps to stamps to the roadside memorials in Florida wherever someone dies in an auto accident (often festooned with flowers by family members).

Some memorials are elegant. Many are not. Instead of focusing on the appropriateness and elegance of proposed memorials, I think we should welcome a diversity of memorials, understanding that good taste is not a wise determinant of what makes a memorial. It certainly was the least of Ronald Reagan's concerns when he was alive.

Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments on June 30, 2004 6:45 AM |