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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

American God

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Given the attention at the Lincoln Memorial this summer, with Black Lives Matter protesters protesting it and anonymous riot gear-bearing centurions guarding it, I decided to think about the memorial and its meaning to the American story. It is interesting to me that Americans chose to memorialize one of the country’s greatest presidents by posing him in a temple as an Olympian god. The Lincoln Memorial is essentially a makeover of a temple to Zeus with Lincoln in the role of the sky king of the Greek pantheon. The religious ramifications don’t seem to trouble anyone. What if someone decided to use the memorial as a temple? I wonder whether park rangers ever have to stop well-intentioned pilgrims from leaving burnt offerings or other votives to Lincoln?

Jokes aside, the real purpose of borrowing this ancient imagery is to create an American mythos, but is it possible to have a temple like memorial and monumental representation of a person without worship entering into it? How does this iconography affect our impression of Lincoln, our feelings toward him? Many people assume he had a booming voice (contemporary accounts say it was higher pitched and reedy) and I wonder if that assumption comes from his godlike status in this memorial. Washington is the “father” of the country, but I surely have warmer feelings toward Lincoln. Perhaps it is his distinctly imperfect appearance in this monument: his hair is uncooperative; his limbs ungainly; his face famously homely. Lincoln’s notably ungodlike appearance likely provides the visual tension that makes the memorial so effective.

I'm interested in myth in general, and in the making of an American mythology, which seems born of our folk traditions, and of these large (I think "State-sponsored" is a correct description) monuments contribute to that. The designers of the memorial took steps in the design to make the South feel included (proximity to Robert E. Lee's house and stone quarried from both sides of the Mason Dixon, and all state names engraved on it rather than the country's name). I wonder though if the shared heritage of the Classical world was also part of the decision. I can't help but think of Southern Plantations with their white, neoclassical columns. It arguably mirrors the massive columns of Lee’s Arlington House.

I don't want to do the Lincoln Memorial any dirt, because it has been embraced by so many people, but it is also a visual representation of the founding mythology of the Greco-Roman world, one of the earliest western white-male hierarchies. That Southerners would feel comfortable with it is not surprising. That white men in power in the North would also agree on it seems natural as well. Again, I think we have draped the Lincoln Memorial with enough positive national memories that it stands for those shared moments and the best values we've all been able to agree upon, but we shouldn't be unaware of what else is happening in this monument. That is part of trying to be a good reader of symbols and visual messages.

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