Image credit: Front cover of American Relics and the Politics of Memory by Matthew Dennis (© 2023 University of Massachusetts Press).

“Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” asked Groucho Marx of an inept contestant on his 1950s radio and television show, You Bet Your Life. By this point, Groucho’s mark had failed to correctly answer any of the trivia questions posed, had seen his winnings reduced to a paltry $6.25, and had become the butt of a joke, which came in the form of a simple, sly question. Even a correct answer could offer little redemption. Mercifully, Groucho accepted a range of responses: Grant, Mrs. Grant, or—technically the right answer—no one. (Grant’s Tomb, a mausoleum, does contain Grant’s remains, but they are entombed, not actually buried.)

Marx’s question focused on American relics, as does this book. What follows trucks in Marxian whimsy and irreverence but also tragedy as well as comedy, the damned as well as the beautiful. Through an examination of the public life of fraught physical objects, it analyzes some of the oddest and most serious and troubling matters that Americans have faced during their history. Things have been critical mediators of political culture in the United States; in nation-building, nationalism, and national identity, forged in war and its aftermath; in shaping the country’s place in the world and its continental expansion, to the great benefit of some and at great cost to others—particularly North America’s Indigenous inhabitants and African Americans, enslaved and victimized by white supremacy even after emancipation. Americans have reckoned with terrorism and unnatural death, sometimes on a massive scale, through material means. Preserved, venerated objects and remains—relics—have loomed large in the struggle to fulfill that difficult but common promise: “We will never forget.” But what will we remember? What will relics and memorials say? Charged memory objects—articulating glory, mastery, sacrifice, honor, heroism, the national greatness—sometimes change their tune, to utter different things in different times and settings, including horror, fear, victimhood, failure, defeat, shame. You bet your life.

Grant’s death in 1885 had caused an outpouring of grief and testimonials to the great man’s greatness. The victorious general—the military savior of the nation—cast a shadow nearly as large as Lincoln himself. After his body lay in state at New York’s City Hall for two days, Grant’s funeral procession stretched for seven miles north through Manhattan and attracted over a million mourners before it reached his place of temporary interment in Riverside Park. Private donations endowed a massive classical tomb, modeled on the ancient mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which was built at 122nd Street and dedicated grandly in 1897.

Grant remains there. But he presents a cautionary tale for those hoping to trace the role of relics in American political culture and public memory. Within little more than fifty years, Grant’s Tomb had somehow become second nature and second class in Morningside Heights—a disregarded pile, largely neglected. It was often noticed, if at all, only through the antics of the country’s preferred Marx (that is, Groucho, not Karl). As the hundredth anniversary of Grant’s death approached, his descendants threatened to move his remains if the decaying memorial and its seedy grounds were not renovated, protected, and maintained. The National Park Service refurbishment restored the tomb’s grandeur and beauty but did little to renew the hero’s place in Americans’ hearts and public memory. Ironically, memorials—even ones as colossal as the temple that honors the once transcendently famous Ulysses S. Grant—seem to give us permission to forget. We might chuckle with Groucho Marx, but the joke is on us all. While the answer to his query might seem self-evident, we seldom ask such questions in the first place. How quickly we forget—or trivialize—that which was once so prominent, memorable, and critical to various Americans’ sense of identity, purpose, and history. Memory is fleeting.

Yet things can make it concrete, thickening, crystalizing meaning. An intimate connection with the relic itself (Grant’s remains or objects associated with him) rather than with his inert monumental reliquary (the tomb) might still ignite public memory, evoke feeling, and make Grant relevant and politically useful even in our own age, particularly in the wake of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the hero’s death. Or maybe not. But while the potency of particular relics might rise and fall, relics generally remain a vocal presence in the national public sphere.

But we should pause here momentarily to ask: What, then, is a “relic”? Common definitions identify it as a material object—often a corpse or a fragment of that corpse—“venerated by the faithful because of its association with a saint or other sacred person.” Relics are, more generally, ruins, residue, vestiges, souvenirs, mementos of the past. The Old French relique, from Latin reliquia, refers specifically to the remains of a martyr or other deceased person and is related to the word relinquere, meaning “to leave behind” or “to relinquish.” We might notice an alternate spelling lurking in our dictionaries—“relict”—that once commonly referred to a widow. “Relict” can be read as the past participle form of “relic” (as in “reliced”): something (or someone) rendered residual, left behind after other parts have disappeared during a process of change. A relic or relict, Webster tells us, can be an object surviving as a remnant of a vanishing race, type, or species, as a trace of an otherwise extinct class or kind.

In medieval Christendom, relics gave power to their possessors. Their magic could be transformative: they assisted the living, offering a means of acquiring knowledge, health, or grace. Their presence enhanced the sacred stature of churches and communities that held them, helped mold worshippers’ identity, and connected believers to a larger Christian world (or to other religious traditions and communities in different parts of the globe). Relics helped cement their possessors’ belonging among the living and over time. More common mortal remains—interred more democratically in churchyards rather than in bejeweled reliquaries—remained proximate to the living, assuaging grief without demanding forgetting and continuing to guide their lives.

Relics could take various forms. They could be “corporeal” (skulls, bones, blood, teeth, hair, nails, and assorted lumps of flesh). They could be noncorporeal items that were possessed by or came into direct contact with a significant individual or event, including articles of clothing (hats, shirts, epaulettes, capes, shoes), pieces of personal property (spectacles, handkerchiefs, pens, weapons), or other associated residual things. Contact or associate relics might include manuscript items or printed books, written texts, letters, and scraps of paper bearing an autograph signature or graphic inscription, or even the grooved footpaths of Christ or the ruts of western pioneers’ wagons. In whatever form, their common, essential characteristic has been (and remains) their extraordinary ability to connect those in their presence directly to the past, making that past physically present in the object. Modern times would produce more virtual relics—photographs or moving or scanned images that constitute (though in less physical ways) the imprint of real people, places, and actions in the past, allowing them to linger in our own present. But we get ahead of our story.

Relics have often been distinguished for their durability and resistance to decay. And yet some of the most arresting relics in U.S. history have been ephemeral, intruding on public space gruesomely, for example, as the centerpiece of lynching spectacles. In the aftermath, the deposition of such troubled things could vary: sometimes they were preserved by supremacists to embody the violent deed and conjure memory, sometimes they were discarded, reclaimed, or buried to cover crimes, promote forgetting, or permit respectful mourning.

Relics’ ability to bridge space could match their facility in transcending time—they are conventionally transportable, sometimes through their fragmentation and multiplication, and their mobility enhances their usefulness to their possessors, who are thus able to deploy their power where they might have the greatest effect. Relics are not always easy to distinguish from the containers that hold them; their potency can leak into whatever surrounds them, through a sort of “holy contagion,” sometimes rendering the container as sacred as the artifact itself. Ironically, though relics are often understood as durable, their meaning and significance are unstable, subject to radical transformation, as social, cultural, and political contexts change.

Relics—whether in medieval Catholicism or nineteenth-century America—could arouse awe and enthusiasm, provoke fear, foster strong feeling and emotion, promote identification and loyalty, and galvanize people to accept authority as legitimate, embrace ideas as self-evident, and understand courses of action as inevitable. Most basically, they have connected the living to the past in a direct, seemingly unmediated way, and this vital link has given relics their unusual power. Relics continue to be instruments for the cultivation of social memory and identity, repositories for the preservation of that memory and identity, and vehicles for their circulation. And while they can promote consensus and unity, they can also precipitate the reverse—division, conflict, even violence.

Though a constant in national public life, relics, like the moon, have waxed and waned, their gravitational pull strengthening or weakening. For U.S. Grant’s once stately relics, Groucho Marx’s midcentury joke signaled a low tidemark. Today, at least the great general’s extraordinary military record exempts his mausoleum from the overdue scrutiny trained on other Civil War monuments, which honor not defenders of the country but (astonishingly) those who fought to destroy it. If Union relics are passé, Confederate relics have become publicly dishonorable, except to misfortunate Lost Causers. The necessary tumult of the Black Lives Matter movement triggered an earthquake that has shaken social and historical consciousness, knocking suspect heroes off their pedestals. At museums and historic sites across the country, noble relics still invite patriotic pilgrims hoping to connect personally with national greatness, and in the most enlightened institutions visitors can confront their country’s material past in all its complexity, face its failures as well as its triumphs, and connect with the pain of its victims as well as the magnificence of its heroes. Looking back to the future at such places, some relics can now say, to quote Langston Hughes, “Let America be America again” (even as “America was never America to me”).

Heroes dominated American political culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but increasingly they have been joined by victims in the second half of the twentieth century, following the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the rise of new social and political movements in the United States. These developments have inspired efforts to move beyond hagiography to confront American tragedy and catastrophe, including colonialism, dispossession, racial discrimination, inequity, and violence. With a democratization of public memory, a broader and diversified array of relics—including material remains of victimized Americans and atrocious relics produced by white supremacists and other terrorists—have helped evoke the nation’s complicated, imperfect past and connect us to it. Such relics bring that past tangibly into the present, documenting and embodying it and helping us address and (one hopes) redress it. Such things attest physically and powerfully to the country’s shortcomings and errors, as well as its glories and achievements, and perhaps set the stage for national repair and justice.

Excerpted from Matthew Dennis’s American Relics and the Politics of Memory (© 2023 University of Massachusetts Press).

Matthew Dennis is professor of History and Environmental Studies Emeritus at the University of Oregon and now lives in New York City.