In Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Kenneth Foote examines the treatment of spaces of violence and tragedy in the US to see how the relationship between private grief and larger national narratives is encoded and shaped by the landscape. His (many) case studies include the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; the first slave arrival (in 1619), mass murders, political assassinations, violent labor and race riots, transportation accidents, fires, floods, and explosions; he argues that “the decision to render sites visible/ invisible reflects a deliberate choice regarding issues of meaning and identity.” Shadowed Ground thus contributes not just to the recovery of American history in the landscape, but to the exploration of the relationship between space and memory.
Foote argues that responses to tragic sites generally fit somewhere along this continuum, keeping in mind that the categories are not fixed:
- Sanctification: creation of a ‘sacred’ space
- Designation: the use of markers to acknowledge the location of an event
- Rectification: the return of the space to operable condition
- Obliteration: effacement of evidence of tragedy from a space
In addition, as time alters the understanding of an event, places can switch categories, so that “the evolution of the social meaning of the event can cause physical alteration to the material space.” Also, the same type of event will not necessarily engender the same response: sites of mass murders by John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, a mass murderer at the McDonald’s in San Ysidro in 1984, and the Oklahoma City bombing all received wildly different responses, from destroying and rebuilding the McDonald’s and building a large public artwork in Oklahoma City to leaving the UT tower as-is (while restricting access to the top, for safety reasons.)
Foote is also interested in the creation of a civic identity via imprinting memory on the landscape. He argues that the “social meaning of a space often correlates with a larger narrative privileged by the locale or nation,” so that sites of violence or tragedy often get wrapped up in the creation of a particular place-based identity. Memorials at places associated with the Texas Revolution of 1836 show how state and regional identity emerge over time; remembering the Great Fire of 1871 in Chicago helps create an origin myth and a civic identity; sites marking the Mormon flight to Utah anchor the development of a religious identity in place. Foote also points out that those events that don’t support the national narrative or that acknowledge shame or conflict rarely get marked: labor struggles, the internment of the Japanese, the historic treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, and Civil Rights turbulence are largely rendered invisible because they don’t fit in with the heroic national narratives.
Foote argues that, read through the American landscapes of memory, violence and tragedy can both construct civic unity and divide society into winners and losers, and that “this irony – that violence and tragedy can both unify and divide – rests like a shadow across the American dream.” While I agree with him that we should mark more sites of tragic events or events that don’t fit the heroic national narrative, I would argue that we’d need to think carefully about what to include. I’m not sure that marking every event ever is a good use of tax dollars, even if it could lead to more individual or cultural catharsis. Perhaps widening the net just a little and complicating the narratives behind existing sites would be a good middling solution?