Disowning the Father

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.


The Shaw Memorial (Boston) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens [click on the image to expand]
The Shaw Memorial (Boston) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens [click on the image to expand]
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.”

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Bucky Inky

    Yes, Dr. Esolen. It is a telling mark of our age that we distract ourselves from how we have rejected and dishonored our own fathers, by inordinately brooding on how they have failed us.

  • Rich in MN

    I think the world is full of ostriches with their heads in the sand (“Why can’t we just sit down and talk to ISIL?”), Chancy Gardners (after the Peter Sellers character from the movie “Being There” who believed he could change reality with his TV remote control), and those who live by the motto, “Ask not only what your country can do for you; ask also what someone else can do for your country. No, don’t ask — DEMAND!” And I know I am guilty of these narcissistic sins of omission and willful blindness myself. However, war also evokes in me a difficult struggle with the notion that the ends somehow justify the means in this one particular case. We are told that no good ends warrant violating the 10 Commandments. For example, we vehemently denounce the person who kills an abortion “doctor” going into an abortion clinic although we all know darn well that the “doctor” is going in there to kill innocent people. However in war, we support the killing of the pawns (who have had guns thrust into their hands) on the other side of the battle lines just as much as they support killing us. Truth be told, I have never studied the Catholic defense of this issue. Dr. Esolen, do you have any good books to recommend?

    • RainingAgain

      One’s head very likely would end up in the sand if one went talking with ISIL!

      As regards the person who is denounced for killing the abortionist, would the people who assert this also denounce the killing of the man who turned on the gas in Auschwitz while on his way to work?

    • Tony

      Rich — I think that the injunction against murder covers the abortionist, just as it would have covered the master of the gladiatorial combats in an arena in ancient Rome. Otherwise we would have no law at all, but chaos. So a man going to war is joining an enterprise that is proclaimed by someone with the authority to do so. That can’t be, in the case of somebody who wants to ambush the abortionist.

      • Rich in MN

        Thank you. It is interesting that there is a certain “break point” at which a brave person will turn their back on that “someone with the authority” to declare war. For example, I had read somewhere that Joseph Ratzinger had abandoned his post despite the fact that he was under the command of the leader of Germany (Hitler) who had the authority to declare war. But I know nothing of the specifics regarding that event, nor do I know what Ratzinger would have done if he had been assigned to a death camp.

      • Bedarz Iliaci

        So, if the Left possesses all the authority, the Right should sit around twiddling their thumbs.
        The authority of the rulers is not unlimited and sacred. Americans have rebelled against so-called authority in past too.

        • Tony

          Of course. The question was, instead, whether a just-war theory can be used to justify murder, even murder of a murderer. I believe the answer is no.

          I don’t spend time twiddling my thumbs.

  • It is hard for me to think of Bostonians as patriots or Americans. I lived there 22 years and know them well. Boston and the Commonwealth are closer to V.I. Lenin than they are to George Washington.

    • RainingAgain

      As an Irishman, I am afraid I have to say that the culprit could be the Irishness. I have to admit that a very great proportion of my fellow countrymen are too attracted by Marxism, even though it is the modern liberal version that so attracts them rather than the earlier, harder communism.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Prof. Esolen is spot on.

    The establishment, especially many schools (elementary, high school and college) are waging war against boys and men.

    The one-time feminist Christina Hoff Sommers came to this conclusion when she bore a son, and saw how the liberal/feminist establishment was trying harm her own son. She authored her book: The WAR AGAINST BOYS: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

    Weighed against the totalitarians of feminism, who have harmed millions of men, women and children in their Marxist campaign, we have a great counter-weight: the brave young soldiers, our young men who, though mostly boys aged 10-15 at the start of the great war against Islamic Brutality, stood up when they were 18-20 and said: I am a man, and I am going to fight for what is right, against this evil.

    Observing such soldiers, as our own young men, Thomas Aquinas assigned their battle against evil in the just war – their willingness to die to defend the right – to the Order of Charity. Yes – it is an act of love to fight against evil in defense of the innocent.

    May God speed our brave soldiers – we cannot pay back our debt to you – you love us – your countrymen – and your fellowman – beyond what we ourselves can fathom.