On Mother’s Day, the New York Daily News ran its normal mix of tabloid tales. A tragic car accident killed parent and child together. The president’s lawyer tweeted a “sultry” photo of his model daughter. The sports pages commemorated the unveiling of a plaque to honor Yankees infielder Derek Jeter in the Bronx stadium’s “Monument Park.” And this: “Torch-wielding protesters chanting ‘Russia is our friend’ rally at Confederate statue in Virginia.”
The accompanying photograph caught my eye. It showed a tall bronze statue of Robert Edward Lee (1807–1870) riding hat-in-hand atop Traveller, his trusty battle horse. In the image, clipped boxwoods frame the granite base. To the right, a large tree paints the background green. To the left, in front of a Protestant church whose steeple is visible, the horse’s extended tail points to a twisting, dark-hued, weeping beech. A faint graffiti stain in the statue’s granite pedestal, a ghostly leftover from someone’s effort to remove it, reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
I recognized the statue in an instant. But I also recognized the beech tree. In fact, I planted it, 35 years ago.
The “torch-wielding protesters” of the headline were followers of Richard Spencer, the 39-year-old rabble-rouser and Trump heil-er. In what was clearly an opportunistic provocation, Spencer rallied for notoriety. But he and his acolytes were responding to recent events in Charlottesville, where a group of people—emboldened by the success of efforts after the 2015 Charleston church shooting to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse and a statue of President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis from New Orleans, among other revisions and erasures to the street furniture of the South—found the Confederate general and his military commander, Stonewall Jackson (in a nearby park), to be also in need of relegation to history’s dustbin. As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu put it, articulating the argument on one side:
These monuments have stood not as historic or educational markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in celebration of it. I believe we must remember all of our history, but we need not revere it. To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in some of our most prominent public places is not only an inaccurate reflection of our past, it is an affront to our present, and a bad prescription for our future.
Richard Spencer disagreed. In Charlottesville, a few city councilors had voted to sell off the statues and rename the parks, claiming “no monuments to white supremacy”—local counter-protests (well before Spencer appeared on the scene) and suits blocked the sale. The official battle over the fate of these statues of Lee and Jackson now resides in the courts.
The tree, meanwhile, grows.
As Paul Berman has pointed out in these pages, “The Southern memorials were erected by people who knew what they were celebrating”—a fanatical devotion to the Lost Cause. You can hear University of Virginia President Edwin Alderman, a leading progressive who made only the most genteel of inroads against Jim Crow segregation, try to navigate these treacherous waters in his 1924 remarks at the dedication of the Lee statue in question:
Here it shall stand during the ages at the center of our lives, teaching, through the medium of beauty, the everlasting lesson of dignity and character, of valor and unselfish service. … And now, in this hour of reunion and reconciliation, we know how … he symbolized the future for us as it has come to pass, and bade us to live in it, in liberal and lofty fashion, with hearts unspoiled by hate and eyes clear to see the deeds of a new and mightier day.
Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, was sculpted by Henry Shrady. As it happens, Shrady’s father was part of the team of physicians who attended to Ulysses S. Grant’s throat cancer. Shrady had become an artist because typhoid had caused him to fail out of the matchstick trade he had entered into with a prominent Jewish businessman. He was sickly for the rest of his 51 years.
Hardly a Southern devotee, Shrady’s first big commission was for a statue of George Washington at Valley Forge, which stands atop a monumental granite base across from Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg, the centerpiece of Brooklyn’s Continental Army Plaza. The general and first president is tricorned and cloaked against the winter cold, his steed bowed in obeisance. He surveys his now-invisible 10,000 men, a quarter of whom perished before the spring of 1778. The vitality and quiet contemplation of this work surely led to Shrady’s second commission, the Ulysses S. Grant memorial at the United States Capitol, which came to occupy the next 20 years of Shrady’s life and stands now as one of D.C.’s great sculptural landmarks, dedicated two weeks after the artist’s death in 1922.
Along the way, in 1917, Shrady was commissioned by a local Charlottesville grandee named Paul McIntire, who had made his fortune in the New York Stock Exchange’s two-decade boom after 1901. (McIntire also funded the statue of Stonewall Jackson, a magnificent 1921 work by Charles Keck, as well as monuments to Lewis & Clark with Sacajawea, and the public library across from Lee Park, and McIntire park, where George Z. and I and other friends would play nine-hole sand-green golf and do our underage drinking.) It’s easy to imagine McIntire thinking that Lee deserved only as much as Grant and Washington got, and that all three should be astride horses, and that Charlottesville, in a very Charlottesvillian brand of provincialism, should be, as the host of “Mr. Jefferson’s” home and college, on par with Washington and New York—all stops, after all, on the Southern Crescent rail line that connected New Orleans to Penn Station in the Reconstruction.
Distracted by work on the statue of the winner of the Civil War, Shrady set to his portrait of the loser only as his health failed. A possibly apocryphal story has Shrady screaming at hospital attendants on his death bed to “keep the canvas moist!”—referring to the cloth he draped on the unfinished clay model but which the nurses, lacking context, thought proved his mental infirmity. After Shrady’s death, Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant, took over the commission, measuring Lee’s garments and Traveller’s skeleton in museums in Richmond and Washington only to find that Shrady had the proportions exact. (The horse skeleton—in another testament to the human desire to leave a mark—was ritually vandalized by students at Washington and Lee University who carved initials in it for good luck, until the remains were encased in concrete near Lee’s former stables in 1971.) Lentelli, born in Bologna, went on to contribute friezes and sculpture to the American landscape, from New York’s Rockefeller Center to San Francisco’s Old Public Library. Finally forged in Brooklyn, the bronze of Lee and Traveller was dedicated in a May 21, 1924, ceremony as part of a Confederate reunion. Lentelli’s final version, though proud and dignified, is rigid compared to Shrady’s best work: Unlike George Washington at Valley Forge, Lee looks frozen and stilted, clutching his hat by his side. Unlike Keck’s Jackson, whose horse gives the impression of energetic movement, Lee lacks—and this is the right word—vitality.
This is hardly the first time Charlottesville has grappled with its complicated past. Of course, “Mr. Jefferson,” as he’s known locally, is trotted out as, yes, Enlightenment polymath, scholar, statesman, and Founding Father, but also a slave-owning hypocrite and perhaps rapist who should have anticipated and embodied the future’s racial and humanistic ethics and not those of his own time. In the 1980s, decades before the current Lee-Jackson brouhaha, Charlottesville debated and then removed several Confederate cannons, stacked cannonballs, and a statue of a Confederate soldier from in front of the Albemarle County courthouse, a short block away from Lee Park, opposite Stonewall Jackson. So a charming Southern American town finds itself coming to grips again with some of the same issues as those confronted by the small Austrian village of Braunau Am Inn, where Hitler was born. Is it better to tear down and erase the emblems of evil and amorality, or preserve and use them didactically?
The memorials scholar James E. Young, in his new book The Stages of Memory, argues in reflecting on both Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Peter Arad and Michael Walker’s National 9/11 Memorial fountains that the “process and work of memory” are equally if not more important than the sculptural, conceptual, or architectural “end result.” A memorial is meaningless without living people to remember—and argue over—its origin and legacy. In fact, if anything, memorials and monuments are most successful when they cause people to recognize that no monolithic view of history is possible and that all people bring their own complicated individual pasts to bear on their understanding. Which is ironic, given the totalitarian effort, inherent in the monumentalizing act, to set the history literally in stone, or bronze. In the modern internet age, monuments can be seen as offensive because the shared ideals and values that animate a monument are atomized. What matters instead is each individual’s value set, which, according to our new mores, should be monumentalized on its own, at the expense of anything larger than the self.
And so I bring my personal history to Robert E. Lee park, where I planted a tree. I don’t want them to take out the serious dignified man riding a horse there, even if the horse’s tail makes it look like it’s farting. It’s a work of art and a fine bronze sculpture (as is that of Stonewall Jackson) that would do better with the addition of a contextualizing plaque explaining why Robert E. Lee’s cause was not a worthy one, rather than removal. I remember it as I remember learning about the Civil War at Charlottesville High School, and wearing my “Shalom Y’all” T-shirt at Temple Israel, a curious bit of Southern pride. I remember being confused about Robert E. Lee the day I fully realized, maybe riding my bike home from the McIntire library by Lee Park, that that man on that horse had lost the war—and worse, had fought for the wrong side. And I looked at him differently, and read up on Stonewall Jackson. I asked my father about segregation even though I was one of only two white players on the JV basketball team and lived and breathed race relations in the South much more so than any Union dweller did. My father is from Boston, and he said that moving to Charlottesville, four short years after the Civil Rights Act had finally outlawed segregated water fountains, was like moving to Mars.
Technically, I didn’t plant that weeping beech myself. But I was there when it was sown, in a little ceremony in the early spring of 1982. My father decided he wanted a memorial for my mother, who had died that winter. He asked the North Downtown Residents Association to petition the city to allow them to plant a tree, which the city willingly enabled, both because cities need trees (and here a specific very old oak had recently fallen), and because Charlottesville is a small town, and was even smaller back then. Though the method of my mother’s death by suicide was not openly aired, it was no secret. So, confused and grieving, my sister and father and I watched this beech sapling go into the ground. There is no plaque or sign there, so no one except those of us who knew her knows that it is a memorial tree.
Watching it grow, even from afar, has been a great solace to me. I visit it more frequently than her grave in the small Jewish cemetery on the other side of downtown, which is marked by a very modest piece of flat granite engraved with her name and dates. The twisting tree, on the other hand, is wide and lush now, with a broad, tentlike canopy reaching to the ground. I have hidden under it like in a fort. There are initials carved in the trunk, much like those in the skeleton of Robert E. Lee’s horse. And because it is alive, it will one day die. I worry that in all this noise about a Confederate general, my mother’s weeping beech will be trampled on or killed or removed, and she will be forgotten.
Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.