Monday, March 4, 2013

The Great Men of Ohio

Last Friday I was hit over the head with the greatest feeling of déjà vu I've ever felt in my life. Vagaries of my brain's information-processing system had little or nothing to do with it. This was a side-effect of pure great writing, characterization and biography, and just a touch of destiny meeting me on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse. 

A little backstory: This past weekend, I Greyhounded myself to Ohio to see college friends, carouse, adventure, relax and share memories. Before that, though, I made for Ohio's house of government to take a tour and see what it would be like to work there. (If I got the job I wanted, that is.) I love Columbus's downtown, by the way, especially after months in New York; the streets are wide and airy, the buildings aren't oppressively tall, there's plenty of green space and the people are happy to give directions or share a joke with a random stranger off the street. There's a park a block away from the statehouse with a light-up dance machine, and the statehouse square sports a giant stone billboard making fun of Christopher Columbus and his everlasting (and false) association with the city. 

A little more backstory: for the past two months or so, ever since seeing Lincoln, I've been on a late-nineteenth-century history kick. I first went for Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which Lincoln was partially based on, then progressed to Candice Miller's Destiny of the Republic, about the murder (and murderer, and accidental abettors) of James Garfield. Then it was on to Bruce Catton's bite-size Reflections on the Civil War, the historical novel The Killer Angels, about the battle of Gettysburg, and most recently David McCullough's The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. All conspired to form a picture of a simpler, wilder America, a place for great men and greater dreams with plenty of room to grow. I came away deeply impressed with the era and those who had driven it, the politicians and the generals and the architects who shaped industrial America.

So there I was, idly wandering around the statehouse grounds and thinking of nothing in particular, when I was confronted with seven of the men I had been reading about for months, bronze statues on a pedestal and right in front of me. The feeling was indescribable; I had never met these men, never known or spoken with them, but in a flash I felt as if I had been their most intimate friend. Salmon P. Chase (Team of Rivals; Senator and later Ohio Governor, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) was the one I saw first and who struck me the hardest. In one defiant moment, he had leaped off the page to confront me in person, looking as arrogant, stern and filled with righteous self-confidence as I could ever have imagined from Goodwin's prose. The sight quite literally took my breath away. 

From left: James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chase.
Here are a few of my notes, thoughts pictures as they relate to the men. 

Chase: This brilliant and devoted politician believed unshakably that he was destined to be President of the United States. Convinced of his own victory, he believed it so strongly that he went to the 1861 Republican Presidential Convention without doing any of the necessary groundwork or trying to woo delegates, as they did in those days; he lost, of course, to Lincoln. Chase's statue stands tall, proud and confident, right hand tucked in his coat in a manner reminiscent of George Washington's portraits. His gaze is stern and uncompromising, seemingly possessed of messianic powers of foresight. 

Hayes: This reform-minded President, who took office at a time of what we would consider astonishing corruption, is the only one I do not know. Holding a paper almost defensively in front of him, Hayes' gaze is one of tired, weathered bewilderment; his eyes peer out like mice from the deep cavities in his worn face. He seems to be wondering how it all went wrong. 

Chase is on the right, Garfield in the center, and Edwin M. Stanton on the left.
Garfield: Viewed as a man of great talent and greater honor, the ludicrously un-ambitious Garfield was nominated for President against his will at his own Convention, over the candidate he had hoped to support. He was shot by an insane assassin-in those days, literally anyone could walk into the White House and ask to see the President, even after Lincoln's death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, but Garfield was shot in a train station-and died in great pain at the hands of his doctors, whose contamination of his wounds eventually killed him. Garfield's statue is proud but troubled; one hand is hidden behind his back, while the other is balled in a fist as if to ward off the pain.

Stanton: Lincoln's Secretary of War, also a onetime political rival, also a turbulent and hot-tempered soul, also an indispensable talent in the prosecution of the Civil War. Goodwin did a hell of a job, as did the sculptor; like Chase, Stanton's statue captures him perfectly. He's looking down at a rolled paper in his hand as if going over his notes one last time before a speech. Again I feel as if I had long known this man, haughty, irascible, brilliant, precisely his portrayal in print and on the screen. His overcoat is slung open, revealing a long double row of buttons over a slight potbelly. He is preoccupied, I feel. Standing for the sculptor must have been simply a formality for him, and a mildly irksome one at that. Surely in another moment he'll stride right off the column and fall spluttering to the pavement. One knee is flexed restlessly; I swear his toe is tapping in impatience. 

Stanton, center right; Philip Sheridan, center left.
 Sheridan: Beside Stanton is Sheridan in all his glory, ablaze with golden sash and medals and a cavalryman's mustache. One hand thumbs the sash; another hangs restless at his side, where a pistol would hang in its holster. Yet this is not the fire-eating cavalry commander who burned the Shenandoah Valley. His eyes are large, limpid and sad, and he stares out at the courtyard as if holding back a sob. 

Right to left: Sheridan, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman.
 Sherman: He's rumpled, like his boss. Two buttons are undone on his jacket and his gloves are clutched forgotten in one hand, while the other rests on a saber hilt. He's clearly just come in from the field. For whatever reason, historical, artistic or human error, his head is gigantic. It dwarfs that of Grant next door.

Grant: In the center, framed by his commanders, is Grant. he's clearly uncomfortable; one hand grasps his lapel as if to hold himself upright, while the other is tucked sloppily in his pocket. His top two buttons are undone, then there's one loyal holdout, then two more deserters below; his shirt is as crinkled and crumpled as his pants, which don't seem to quite fit. His whole body seems rumpled--but his face! An old face, a wise face, lined by cares. Like Robert E. Lee, he appears haunted by old sorrows. And yet there is a quiet dignity to him, head up, shoulders straight, facing out at the world. Above him is Ohio herself and the inscription "These are my jewels". 

And then this happened.
 This entire thing had a lot of special meaning for me, and it makes my observation and writing purple. So let's end on a different note with a different statue. Know what didn't make any damn sense? William McKinley's statue. For starters, it's Greek; the U's in the inscription are replaced with V's, it's a marble mini-plaza instead of a simple statue, and tiny couples whisper into each others' ears about the great man standing in front of them on his gigantic pedestal. And to top it off, for whatever reason, McKinley looks pissed off. He has this righteous-wrath-of-the-crusaders expression upon his face like he's going to come down and unleash holy havoc. If anyone can explain that, I'd love to hear the story behind that one.

1 comment:

Lawrence Rhodes said...

Chase was secretary of the treasury. All of Lincoln's cabinet thought they could do better.

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