Convinced that nothing has happened to him, Colin Rafferty travels to the sites of historic events to see the monuments and memorials erected there. In his new book Hallow This Ground, Rafferty ponders how these monuments work and what they say about us, and also who he might become.
Rafferty shares more about his book and the transformation he went through while visiting sites from Columbine High School to Auschwitz in this interview:
Why were you drawn to exploring monuments and memorials?
“Because it is there,” is the answer George Mallory is supposed to have given to a woman who asked him why he wanted to climb Everest back in the 1920s. I suppose my impulses are the same—all those monuments and memorials are there already, constantly driven past and mowed around, and no one seemed to want to write about them.
Maybe it’s more about the idea of the Midwest, or the idea of the suburbs, or the idea of the Midwestern suburbs like the one in which I grew up in Kansas City—the common lament of youth is that there’s nothing there, that nothing ever happens. Of course there are always things happening all the time everywhere; it’s very difficult to find a stretch of ground on this planet where you can state with authority that no one has ever set foot there. This book grew out of this feeling that even if it seemed like nothing had happened in my life and nothing had happened where I’d live, something must have happened.
So I started looking around for the signs that something had happened, and it turned out that those signs are everywhere—it’s just that they’d been part of the landscape for so long that they’d become invisible. Once I realized that, I saw them all the time, and the book grew from that. There’s not a first monument for this project, but maybe a first dozen monuments, all of which stuck together into something I thought I had to address.
The essay “Hallow This Ground” takes its title from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In the address, Lincoln says that it is the dead and not the living who make a place sacred; however, it is the living who build memorials and monuments in order to commemorate what happened there. Why do you think the living feel the need to do this?
Well, the thing about history is that they keep making more of it, so I think the reason for memorialization is a reaction to that occasionally overwhelming speed of history—once we’ve got something in stone or steel on the spot, then we know it’s not going anywhere. But I think, too, that there’s some modeling that happens with memorializing history and people; we make monuments to the generations before us to show the generations after us how we want to be remembered, or maybe just that we want to be remembered.
Do you think memorials exist to provoke us to remember or to allow us to forget?
I think they allow us to make remembering optional. By officially commemorating an event, we’ve performed an act that we consider adequate for respecting (however one wants to define that word) the dead. Your county courthouse probably has a statue of a soldier on its front lawn, but unless you’ve made the effort to visit it—unless you’ve made the effort to use the memorial’s role as repository of memory—you probably don’t know what war it commemorates.
There’s an artist in Europe, Gunter Denmig, who has installed tens of thousands of tiny memorials, small cubes with a brass overlay, in front of homes from which victims of the Holocaust were deported. He calls them Stolperstein, which literally means “stumbling block.” It’s the largest memorial in the world, and a remarkable one, because each individual block acts as a catalyst for reminding the viewer of what happened, rather than allowing them to forget. Because they’re spread out into the cities, rather than contained in a public space, the stolperstein subvert that normal containment of memory. They’re quite audacious in that way.
In your essay “The Path,” you look for the memorial that commemorates a walkway collapse in your hometown, but can’t find anything. Why do we choose to memorialize some incidents and not others?
With the hotel walkway collapse in Kansas City that forms the impetus for “The Path,” there are corporate interests in play, and for a long time, it was tough to convince people to stay at a hotel that openly reminded them that 114 people died. But our desire for memorialization usually wins out, and while this book was going to press, a small memorial park near the hotel was dedicated.
So maybe what I’m trying to figure out in part in this book is not so much the question of why we memorialize some incidents and not others, but rather why some get memorialized before others. The wheel of time seems to turn to everyone eventually.
What did you learn about yourself while visiting the monuments and memorials you write about in your book? Did the experience of visiting these places change you?
It would have been impossible, I think, to spend so much time at these sites marked by moments of change (both big and small) and not be changed as well. But I also wanted to resist the easy emotional punch of memorials, where tourists go to the site, feel exactly what they’re supposed to feel, and then go on to the next thing on their list, so I made a conscious effort to be very deliberate in my visits, and to try to see how the memorials and monuments worked, and then to consider what else was at work (or prevented from working) at the site. It made me a more deliberate person, I think—someone willing to sit and wait for the place to reveal itself.
What was the most personally meaningful monument you visited and why?
If this project has an origin, it might be the day in high school in which I read a New Yorker article about the efforts of curators to preserve the Auschwitz site. I’d always known that history happens in places, but that was one of the first times I’d realized that those places were contested and in transition.
So I spent the next dozen or so years thinking about Auschwitz, and for a site that I had no claim to, it held in a way that is tough to explain. When I finally reached the site, after years of thinking about it and preparing to go there, it was tremendously overwhelming—here it is, the place you’ve thought about for the majority of your life is real. And then to be in that place for a week, living there, eating there, shopping there—that time made the whole thing incredibly complex and intense.
There were certainly memorials that had a more direct personal connection to me—the ones in Kansas City, for example, or the ones in Washington that my wife and I explored together—but Auschwitz has been the one that drilled down into the me the deepest.
What is your next writing project?
Because I now live in Virginia, I’ve been surrounded by presidential sites for the last few years—obvious places like Mount Vernon and Monticello but also less notable sites like the John Tyler grave in Richmond and James Monroe’s law office. As a result, I’ve been working on a series of forty-four essays, one for each president. Each one also tries to experiment with what the essay form can do, too, so it includes things like essays written as palindromes and death songs, prayers and movie scripts—there’s even a short comic. It’s also a tremendous motivator; if I can get an essay about Millard Fillmore published, then what’s stopping me from doing just about anything?
Take a sneak peek at Hallow This Ground in this excerpt. If you like what you read here, please consider suggesting it for your book club! Book club discussion questions are available in the book and on our website.