Author Carves History Out of Sculptures
Above John Howard Payne's grave in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery is a large statue of the American actor, writer and diplomat, who achieved fame for penning "Home, Sweet Home," the song that includes the immortal line: "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."
Payne's white marble bust is famous for another reason: It might be the only statue in Washington to have received a shave.
It was first carved depicting a bearded Payne, but before the monument was dedicated in 1883, a cemetery official worried that Payne hadn't sported chin hairs after all. The official ordered a stonemason to chip away the beard. Today, Payne's chin and neck are as smooth as a baby's bottom (although he does sport a '70s porn star-style 'stache).
Quirky details such as this are what make the new edition of James M. Goode's "Washington Sculpture," just published by Johns Hopkins University Press, so captivating. Yes, it has the lowdown on Washington's charismatic mega-statues -- your Lincolns, your Jeffersons, your Grants -- but its 830 pages also contain information on little-known or out-of-the-way works. The index lists 73 species under "animal sculptures," from alligator to woodchuck.
Goode's first edition was published in 1974, an outgrowth of a walking tour that the one-time history professor led for the Smithsonian. So many people asked for a list of the statues that he spent four years tracking down just about every sculpture he could find in Washington, reading newspaper clippings, dipping into the minutes of the Commission of Fine Arts and interviewing sculptors. He described about 325 statues.
The new volume has about twice as many, including works in suburban Maryland and Virginia. If you've ever wondered about a bronze general atop a horse or an abstract lump of stone in a park, this is the place to start.
Goode (pronounced like "mood"), 69, dates his interest in the built environment to his youth, when an aunt would drag him to historic houses in his native North Carolina. He estimates that two sculptures go up every month in the Washington area, meaning that his book was out of date the minute he turned in the manuscript.
And as much as he loves sculpture, it occasionally gets to be too much. He mentioned his mixed feelings after checking out a statue of Emiliano Zapata in front of the Mexican consulate on 16th Street NW: "I was walking back from the car when I saw a bronze forehead sticking up over the boxwood and I thought, 'Oh, my God, not another one.' "
The bronze forehead belonged to a likeness of Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Padereweski, who is honored with a statue at the Polish chancery. Goode managed to slip a mention into the book's introduction.
More statuary on embassy soil is responsible for some of the sculpture explosion of the past 30 years. So, too, the multiplying national memorials near the Mall and the multitude of developers who finish off their office blocks by plopping an abstract sculpture out front.
The book is arranged by neighborhood, and each statue's listing has information on the artist, the subject and the organization that commissioned the work. For example, did you know that Defenders of Wildlife, which sports a bronze sculpture of a gray wolf outside its Washington headquarters, paid $70,000 in 2003 to 55 ranchers who lost livestock to wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico?
Statues tell stories, especially in Washington, a statue-rich town. Whom we decide to commemorate, and how, reveals something about us as a society. And what you can't tell from looking at the sculpture, Goode reveals in his book.
For example, at Oak Hill Cemetery, not far from Payne's cleanshaven bust, is a statue that a man named John Joyce put up a few years before he died, knowing he'd be buried beneath it.
Joyce was famous for a poem he published in 1885 that began "Laugh, and the world laughs with you/Weep, and you weep alone." After it became popular, a Wisconsin poet named Ella Wheeler accused him of plagiarism, noting that she published those lines in 1883.
As Goode writes in his book: "Joyce refused to acknowledge that she was the real author. He even had the two lines carved on his tombstone shortly before he died."
Joyce probably thought he'd had the last word, but Goode did.
See what's burbling on my blog, "John Kelly's Commons": voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.