More on the Challenge of Commemoration

I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for Current, the online magazine edited by historians John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. So it was an honor to make my debut there this morning, with an essay that connects the ongoing debate over historical commemoration to themes from my new biography of Charles Lindbergh.

Entitled “The Challenge of Graven Images,” it notes that a Minnesota state commission is in the process of deciding what to do with the statues and other memorials located in and near the Minnesota state capitol, where Native American protestors tore down a Christopher Columbus monument last summer. There’s been a Lindbergh monument on the capitol mall since 1985, so I thought I’d share some perspective on that statue: what it does and doesn’t capture about “the man who’s likely the most famous—and infamous—person to have been born in Minnesota,” an iconic figure who both bore the Image of God himself and didn’t see it in other humans.

Here’s a taste:

In 1984, the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned artist Paul Granlund to create a monument in honor of Charles A. Lindbergh. Erected a year later, the sculpture pairs two statues of Lindbergh: one a young boy in Little Falls, Minnesota gazing off into his future; the other a young pilot looking out over the ocean he was about to cross in May of 1927.

Neither image, however, much resembles the middle-aged eugenics enthusiast who responded to the outbreak of World War II by urging America to join Nazi Germany in building “a Western wall of race and arms” that would preserve those “of European blood” against “a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.” That Lindbergh goes unseen in St. Paul, as does the Lindbergh who privately disparaged Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich, and who publicly made anti-Semitic arguments against U.S. intervention in WWII.

“There are many different Charles Lindberghs,” one local Jewish activist told the Star Tribune—”he’s a complicated personality.” For that matter, Granlund’s work doesn’t try to embody an older Lindbergh’s efforts to preserve wildernesses and protect endangered species, nor does it hint at his fascinating spiritual journey that is the focus of my new Lindbergh biography.

Click here to read the full article at Current. (And do consider joining me in becoming a supporting patron of that publication!)

Of course, there are only so many words about Charles Lindbergh and Minnesota commemoration that John et al. could be expected to publish, so let me use my own blog to dive a bit deeper into the question, by retracing the steps of my own visit to that site last month.

I should have noted that the state historical society commissioned the Lindbergh memorial ten years after his death. MNHS was then led by Lindbergh’s friend Russell Fridley, who had also published the pilot’s reminiscences about growing up in Little Falls, overseen the refurbishment of the Lindbergh House, and invited him to make one of his last public addresses there. (For a more nuanced view of Lindbergh from the MNHS, see the Lindbergh Memorial entry in MNopedia.) Fundraising for the dual “boy and man” statues was led by former Minnesota governor Elmer Andersen, who had also been active in setting up the Lindbergh Fund, which was dedicated to Lindbergh’s belief — inscribed in the sidewalk by the statues — that “[t]he accumulation of knowledge, the discoveries of science, the products of technology, our ideas, our art, our social structures, all the achievements of mankind have value only to the extent that they preserve and improve the quality of life.”

What that inscription doesn’t note is a point that’s central to my interpretation of Lindbergh’s life: that “the quality of life” was a phrase Lindbergh borrowed in the late 1930s from an unpublished manifesto by his mentor, Catholic scientist Alexis Carrel, advocating for a “positive” approach to eugenics. It came to stand for taking a more balanced approach to modern life, but “the quality of life” was embedded in Lindbergh’s long-held conviction that not all human life was created equally.

It’s possible that that belief alone — which undergirds his public statements of white supremacy, antisemitism, and sympathy for Nazi Germany — should make Minnesotans rethink placing a memorial to Charles Lindbergh in the public center of our state’s civic life.

But even if the Lindbergh memorial remains, I hope visitors to the site think to “read it” in conversation with its neighbors.

On last month’s walk, I forgot to go over to the Minnesota World War II Memorial to see if the story told on its ten narrative panels mentions Lindbergh and the America First movement. But I did head a few steps to the north, to the seven-foot bronze statue of former U.S. vice president and U.S. senator Hubert H. Humphrey, who died just four years after Lindbergh but had to wait until 2012 to get a capitol mall memorial. Just after the end of a war that Lindbergh infamously accused Jews of trying to involve Americans in, Humphrey became mayor of Minneapolis and worked to combat the city’s traditional antisemitism. He then helped lead the charge within the Democratic Party to support civil rights for African Americans, including the right to vote — which Charles Lindbergh (in private) had wanted to take away from the few Black citizens who exercised it in the 1940s.

Better yet, go south from the Lindbergh statues to the unusual memorial named for Roy Wilkins, the Minnesota journalist and activist who helped lead the NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s. Strikingly, the Wilkins Memorial doesn’t include a statue or other image of Roy Wilkins. Instead, it features more abstract images arrayed in a “spiral for justice,” commemorating his values and his work on behalf of others.

I think that symbolic approach offers an excellent alternative to the practice of erecting statues. As I argue in the Current piece, even a three-dimensional portrait can’t capture anything like the complexity of a human life and legacy. So statues inherently risk becoming something like the “graven images” Anne Lindbergh wanted to shatter when she published her diaries and letters with minimal editing. While the Lindbergh statue doesn’t help us see the image of those he regarded as lesser, the Wilkins memorial is pays tribute to the dignity and rights of millions of Americans long deprived of their rights — symbolizing both the obstacles faced by the civil rights movement and its achievements.

Likewise, I’m glad that our capitol mall also commemorates the cause of women’s suffrage. Dedicated in 2000, that memorial is unusual for its integration of human and natural history. Fusing a flower garden with a metallic trellis, the suffrage site aims to reflect

the natural undulating landscape common to the state formed by the last major glacier to recede from Minnesota.

A connection can be seen between the force of the glacial movement on the natural landscape, and the force of the suffrage movement on the cultural and political landscape of Minnesota.

In that sense, the memorial isn’t about any single person but honors generations of women, a mass movement that worked for decades to secure the right to vote — and still strives for gender equality in other arenas.

But while the memorial doesn’t include the images of any particular women, it does start by quoting an Elizabeth Cady Stanton resolution from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention (“that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise”) and the undulating trellis includes the names of several key activists from Minnesota.

One of them is Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884), a pioneering journalist who edited newspapers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and St. Cloud, Minnesota (not far from Lindbergh’s home town). As I learned in one of the first senior papers I oversaw at Bethel, Swisshelm used her platform to promote women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and to urge harsh treatment of Minnesota’s indigenous population. Horrified by the deaths of settlers early in the US-Dakota War of 1862, Swisshelm wrote a string of fiery editorials, calling at one point for white Minnesotans to “Exterminate the wild beasts, and make peace with the devil and all his hosts sooner than these red-jawed tigers, whose fangs are dripping with the blood of the innocents!” She urged the expulsion of the Lakota and even relocated to Washington, DC to lobby the Lincoln administration on this point.

If I don’t know what to do with the Lindbergh statues, I’m even less sure how to handle the inclusion of Jane Grey Swisshelm on the suffrage memorial, which is just south of the former site of Columbus statue. But I will be curious to see the recommendations of the memorial commission headed by lieutenant governor Peggy Flanagan. The first Native American elected to statewide office, Flanagan couldn’t “feign sadness” last summer when the Columbus statue came down, since “there is no honor in the legacy of Christopher Columbus.”