Monday, June 29, 2020

'A Cause that Could Never Have Been Gained'

A native of New York City and for the previous twenty years a resident of Europe, Henry James returned to the United States in August 1904 and remained until July 1905, touring his homeland from coast to coast. Early in 1905 he visited the American South for the first time, stopping in Richmond, Va., where he viewed the South-facing bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The work of the French sculptor Marius Jean Antonin MerciĆ©, it had been dedicated May 29, 1890. James saw in it “a strange eloquence . . . a kind of melancholy nobleness,” as he later wrote in The American Scene (1907):

“The equestrian statue of the Southern hero, made to order in far-away uninterested Paris, is the work of a master and has an artistic interest--a refinement of style, in fact, under the impression of which we seem to see it, in its situation, as some precious pearl of ocean washed up on a rude bare strand.”

Vandals, naturally, have targeted the Lee statue. Bringing it down will require much engineering prowess or a significant quantity of explosives. Lee and his horse are twenty-one feet tall and stand on a granite pedestal forty feet tall. On April 15, 1861, James’ eighteenth birthday, President Lincoln had issued his first call for volunteers. Three days earlier, Southern guns had fired on Fort Sumter. His younger brothers and two of his cousins enlisted in the Union Army. James was drafted but declared medically unfit for military service. One can’t imagine Henry James marching with a musket on his shoulder. In his chapter of Richmond, the Lee monument suggests to James “a quite conscious, subjective, even a quite sublime, effort to ignore, to sit, as it were, superior and indifferent . . .” In his final view of the statue, James closes his Richmond chapter with this:

“As I looked back, before leaving it, at Lee’s stranded, bereft image, which time and fortune have so cheated of half the significance, and so, I think, of half the dignity, of great memorials, I recognized something more than the melancholy of a lost cause. The whole infelicity speaks of a cause that could never have been gained.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

I've been recently thinking about the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. How grateful I am that it was made in 1990! Just imagine how different it would be if it were made today.