A life may not merit a statue. But it does require a story.
In the first years of this country, reports art historian Kirk Savage, dedicated republicans couldn’t imagine anything “more monarchical” than the idea of erecting a statue to George Washington. But while the greatest monument to the first president of the United States eventually took the shape of an obelisk, statues nevertheless proliferated in the city named after him.
For a couple of centuries now, the question has not been whether Americans should create statues of each other but rather who should be so commemorated.
And who shouldn’t. Static as such monuments may seem, statuary does come and go. Last year a sculpture of Confederate general Robert E. Lee quietly left the U.S. Capitol, a few months after Native American activists not so quietly tore down the statue of Christopher Columbus that had stood in front of the Minnesota State Capitol since 1931.
Since that incident, which came in the wake of the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, a panel headed by lieutenant governor Peggy Flanagan has been reevaluating which monuments should stay, go, and be added to the state capitol and the grounds around it. The first Native American elected to statewide office in Minnesota, Flanagan told the Star Tribune that commemorative “structures and the systems have to be able to respond to the changing demographics and the changing viewpoints that weren’t included, frankly, when many of these statues and monuments went up.” For example, should the state continue to honor Europeans like Columbus and the Norse explorer Leif Erickson, who “discovered” land that was already inhabited? What about officials who enabled and oversaw the white settlement of that territory, like Knute Nelson?
Then there’s the man who’s likely the most famous—and infamous—person to have been born in Minnesota.
In 1984, the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned artist Paul Granlund to create a monument in honor of Charles A. Lindbergh. Erected a year later, the sculpture pairs two statues of Lindbergh: one a young boy in Little Falls, Minnesota gazing off into his future; the other a young pilot looking out over the ocean he was about to cross in May of 1927.
Neither image, however, much resembles the middle-aged eugenics enthusiast who responded to the outbreak of World War II by urging America to join Nazi Germany in building “a Western wall of race and arms” that would preserve those “of European blood” against “a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.” That Lindbergh goes unseen in St. Paul, as does the Lindbergh who privately disparaged Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich, and who publicly made anti-Semitic arguments against U.S. intervention in WWII.
“There are many different Charles Lindberghs,” one local Jewish activist told the Star Tribune—”he’s a complicated personality.” For that matter, Granlund’s work doesn’t try to embody an older Lindbergh’s efforts to preserve wildernesses and protect endangered species, nor does it hint at his fascinating spiritual journey that is the focus of my new Lindbergh biography.
I don’t know whether that journey argues for or against keeping Lindbergh’s statue on the state capitol mall. (Already this summer, a Minneapolis suburb has considered dropping Lindbergh’s name from its high school gym, while in neighboring Wisconsin, Milwaukee leaders decided to rename that city’s Lindbergh Park.) But it does remind me that the task of a historian is to capture a more complicated kind of image.
No one understood that better than Charles Lindbergh’s wife. Do not “make unto thee a graven image,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh quoted Scripture in 1976, in explaining why she published her diaries and letters rather than write “a condensed, softened, and retouched autobiography.” Although the result was bound to be uncomfortable and messy, she meant to disrupt “the desired pleasant image” of her and her husband.
Remarkably, Anne Lindbergh chose to make public her most private writings precisely because she knew that historians like me could then use such evidence “to sort out and unmask the images of another epoch.” In the process of scrutinizing such icons, we can start to describe a different kind of eikon: the “image of God” in which all humans have been created (Gen. 1:26-27).
All humans, including Charles Lindbergh.
All humans, including those Charles Lindbergh viewed as fundamentally inferior to himself.
“While people have been created with freedom,” writes John Fea, “and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has inherent value in God’s eyes.” In a person as flawed as Charles Lindbergh, that image is badly distorted. But it is never obliterated.
At the same time, belief in the Imago Dei also encouraged this historian-biographer to keep in focus the millions of people whose divine images Charles Lindbergh ignored and obscured.
Even after World War II caused Lindbergh to rethink some of his earlier convictions, he held fast to his assumption that inequality was a natural condition of divine origin. “Unless we believe that every man is a child of God,” argued Robert M. Hutchins in 1946, “we cannot love our neighbors.” In reply, Lindbergh told the University of Chicago president that “the laws of God are always emphasizing the quality of life, not its equality.” Competitive strife, not inherent dignity, was what Lindbergh’s God intended for humanity.
So the task of a historian is both to craft Lindbergh’s own likeness in its complex fullness and to help the reader glimpse the Jewish refugees, eugenics victims, and persons of color whose worth Lindbergh could never clearly see. That, and not the “desired pleasant image” of a memorial statue, is the kind of public portraiture Charles Lindbergh deserves.
Chris Gehrz is professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. His biography of Charles Lindbergh is due out August 17th and can be preordered from the publisher and local bookstores.