Ersatz America

Ersatz America: Hidden Traces, Graphic Texts, and the Mending of Democracy

Rebecca Mark
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Ersatz America
    Book Description:

    From the popular legend of Pocahontas to the Civil War soap operaGone with the Windto countless sculpted heads of George Washington that adorn homes and museums, whole industries have emerged to feed America's addiction to imaginary histories that cover up the often violent acts of building a homogeneous nation. InErsatz America,Rebecca Mark shows how this four-hundred-year-old obsession with false history has wounded democracy by creating language that is severed from material reality. Without the mediating touchstones of body and nature, creative representations of our history have been allowed to spin into dangerous abstraction.

    Other scholars have addressed the artificial qualities of the collective American memory, but what distinguishesErsatz Americais that it does more than simply deconstruct--it provides a map for regeneration. Mark contends that throughout American history, citizen artists have responded to the deadly memorialization of the past with artistic expressions and visual artifacts that exist outside the realm of official language, creating a counter narrative. These examples of what she calls visceral graphism are embodied in and connected to the human experience of indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and silenced women, giving form to the unspeakable. We must learn, Mark suggests, to read the markings of these works against the iconic national myths. In doing so, we can shift from being mesmerized by the monumentalism of this national mirage to embracing the regeneration and recovery of our human history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3627-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-24)

    Between 11 September 2001 and 29 August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, I wondered, often in despair, how, precisely, literature, art, and culture could do anything to save America, and for that matter the world. I questioned, as have many writers and artists in the past decade, whether I should quit my job and spend more time in the streets organizing for a better world. I was afraid for our democracy, and yet I was not cynical. I passionately believed in this democracy. During the long evacuation of Katrina, as I sat, pen in hand, in libraries in Washington,...

    (pp. 25-49)

    Tourists standing today in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC, can look up at a painting on the ceiling of the dome called theApotheosis of Washington,by Constantino Brumidi. The painting portrays George Washington in military regalia, with a purple throw draped over his legs, floating in heavenly ether, surrounded by semiclothed women representing the thirteen states.¹ In this mural the “father of our country” appears as a rather effeminate old man ascending to the heavens. TheApotheosisforces tour guides at the Capitol to gaze up to the eye of the dome and talk about George Washington not...

    (pp. 50-100)

    When Peggy Lee sang the lyrics “Capt’n Smith and Pocahontas / Had a very mad affair / When her daddy tried to kill him / She said, Daddy oh don’t you dare,” she was keeping alive one of the most pervasive myths of American history.¹ It is not just Peggy Lee’s Pocahontas who has a fever for John Smith; it is the whole American culture. Americans love a great romance, and the story of John Smith and Pocahontas has given us a titillating and “very mad affair” upon which to lay the scaffolding of our fantasized American nation. According to...

    (pp. 101-153)

    In the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, a 66,700-squarefoot complex opened in 2006 on the grounds of Washington’s Mount Vernon home, and in the gift shops at the estate Washington’s head figures prominently. If you count the Houdon bust, the new sculptures of Washington at various ages, the enormous new floating head of Washington, and Grant Wood’s Washington, there are quite literally Washington heads to the right of us and Washington heads to the left of us.

    On one side of the Reynolds complex is the museum that houses Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Washington, sculpted in 1785. On...

    (pp. 154-200)

    There is little doubt that George Washington’s life and death, seized upon by the likes of Parson Weems, added height to the already sky-high scaffolding of ersatz America. While the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities were busy preserving an America built with enslaved labor, the nation was falling apart. Trying desperately to solidify an image of an established, nation resting comfortably on the head of George Washington’s pastoral slavery, these organizations ignored the fact that slavery’s incompatibility with democracy was becoming blatantly obvious. Just as Washington’s slaves in the late eighteenth century...

    (pp. 201-236)

    The writers of the Emancipation Proclamation and the generals of the Civil War never intended to endow true liberty and selfhood to African American people, nor were they capable of doing so. As the poet Audre Lorde would say, the master’s tools never dismantle the master’s house. If enslaved people had not lived as human beings despite the dehumanizing extremities of the slave institution, there would have been no selves left for Lincoln to declare free.¹ Ira Berlin argues inFreedomthat “no one was more responsible for smashing the shackles of slavery than the slaves themselves.”² But he does...

    (pp. 237-242)

    On one research trip to Jamestown while working on the chapter about George Washington’s head, I took a detour to a place called Presidents Park, near Williamsburg, to see the two-story, eighteen-foot-high busts of forty-two of the American presidents (fig. 44). I was both amused and horrified by the sheer audacity of these huge hollow busts by David Atickes. Presidents Park is truly the height of ersatz history.

    I have since learned that there were actually two Presidents Parks, the one near Williamsburg and one in North Dakota, both now closed. The one near Williamsburg closed before a bust of...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 243-260)
    (pp. 261-280)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 281-300)