Consider how many of the details of the following narrative have become strange to us.
In the fall of 1896, one William Coffin sat in the studio of an Irish-American sculptor with the exotic name, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He was the greatest sculptor in the nation, though he left school to become an apprentice when he was thirteen.
Coffin saw a date carved on a new work, October 10, and cried, “Why, this is Shaw’s birthday!” He noted the coincidence, because he’d commissioned Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a great bronze memorial in honor of Captain Robert Shaw, who had trained and led the Massachusetts 54th, one of the first colored regiments in the Civil War.
Shaw and his men were ordered to storm Fort Wagner, on the coast of South Carolina. Shaw himself was but a young man, with a young man’s close-trimmed beard; blue-eyed, and by all accounts exceptionally handsome. He had been educated in France, and had come from one of the best old families in New England.
He had married his sweetheart just a few months before. A life of honor, achievement, and comfort lay before him. So did Fort Wagner, his sense of duty, and his esteem for the colored men he led. They, he knew, faced a far worse fate than he did, should the war be lost.
They were weary and hungry. Shaw, writes the editor for The Century (June, 1897), “walked along the line and encouraged them, saying, ‘Now, men, I want you to prove yourselves men!” When asked whether he would accompany the attackers or remain in the rear, Shaw said to his adjutant, “Ned, I shall go in advance of the men with the National flag; you will keep the State flag with you. It will give the men something to rally round. We shall take the fort, or die there.”
They died there: Shaw and twenty of his officers and hundreds of his men. They were buried in a long trench near the sea. But, says the editor, even Shaw’s former enemies have come round to honor the young man’s devotion. “No death in the cause of liberty and union,” he writes, “save that of Lincoln himself, has been the occasion of such tributes as those which have been offered to the memory of Shaw.”
Shaw – who? But that was an age that honored heroes. The poet James Russell Lowell wrote these lines, engraved on the memorial:
Right in the van
On the red rampart’s slippery swell,
With heart that beat a charge he fell
Forward, as fits a man;
But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet
Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet.
The editor adds, “And he was Emerson’s youth who nobly answers to the voice of duty,” adding these splendid verses:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can.
So a group of men collected funds for a fine memorial to that youth. Various things got in the way, until at last in 1884 they hired Saint-Gaudens, in his prime. They expected he would take two years at the task. He did, but it was two years spread over twelve.
For Saint-Gaudens warmed to the subject – the nobility of the leader, the determination of the colored men, their fierce desire for freedom. Often he sketched and sculpted and dismantled everything. One day he was riding the trolley in New York and saw a black man on the sidewalk – and he leaped out and cried, “Do you want a job?” Saint-Gaudens knew exactly which faces he wanted, and in what combination.
The result is astonishingly beautiful and unified – a round-cheeked drummer boy with grave countenance, enthralled by the military rhythm, a grizzled old-timer, a man open-eyed and eager for the fight, the man beside him lost in thought, with eyes shut – and amid them, the single-minded Captain upon a grand and sinewy horse, his right hand both tense and at ease at his side, holding a naked sword, his right foot jauntily half in the stirrup and half out, suggesting a man ready to spring into action.
We no longer make such memorials. Maybe we’ve lost the skill. But maybe we no longer want to make them, because we no longer want to remember.
Healthy people honor their forefathers. It’s a natural thing. They forgive their failings, and remember and honor their virtues.
We are the only people I know who do the opposite. We scorn our forefathers. We forget or deny their virtues, and magnify their failings. We delight in thinking worse of them than they deserve.
The feminist is disappointed to hear that her grandfather was not a beast to her grandmother. The nouveau Catholique is disappointed to hear that the Church never blessed slavery. The innovator in education does not want to open an old schoolbook, lest it prove embarrassing or even difficult or impossible for him to read.
These are symptoms of a spiritual malaise:
We are living today . . . in a world in which the notion of sonship, and the notion of fatherhood too, are tending to be emptied of that richness of meaning which they possessed for other societies. . . .[We must] get a firm grasp of the almost completely negative conception of sonship, which is tending to define itself and to assert its authority before our eyes. It seems to define itself [as] a refusal – a refusal to acknowledge the existence in life . . .of a value that allows us to think of life as a gift.
Gabriel Marcel spoke those words for his Gifford Lectures, in Edinburgh, in 1949, concluding that “it is only a broken world that could give rise to such practices, for instance, as artificial insemination.”