That is why it is so devastating any time a statue comes down, because there is no other way to learn. No, I take it back. Sometimes, you can learn a little history from the name of a school or building, or the name attached to one of the days in a long weekend during which there is a mattress sale, but that is the only other way. It is very sad, but there it is.
What little we know of the past of this country has been supplied to us exclusively by statues. As far as we can tell from the statue record, America was founded by Washington-Jefferson-Lincoln-Roosevelt, an enormous four-headed rock monster dozens of feet high with every possible permutation of facial hair.
This fearsome creature was president four times, and it would have been president even more times if it hadn’t been for the mysterious decision to sever its phallus from the main body and display it separately in Washington, D.C., where, for some reason, an elevator was placed inside it. It remains a puzzle to historians why the bearded quarter of the rock monster was duplicated and set on a chair in a Greek-style house to stare at the phallus across a body of water.
(One of the non-bearded quarters also has a Greek hut of his own in Washington, but he overlooks a copse of cherry blossoms instead. The reasons for this are very unclear. Possibly he had something to do with the seasons?)
Also involved in this somehow was a woman many, many stories tall who still stands in New York Harbor. We know that she was a big fan of huddled masses yearning to breathe free and that she lifted her lamp beside the golden door (although there is no golden door we can see; possibly its statue did not survive?). Was she the lover of the four-headed president monster? Did she create it and regret her creation? Was she responsible for the ritual severing of its phallus?
There is someone similar to her in general aspect who stands atop the Capitol, and we do not know whether they are relatives, friends, rivals or lovers. There is also a colorful bearded man in a cheery plaid shirt with a blue ox who seems to have been responsible for settling much of the country, but the dates of this are impossible to determine. Indeed, between the founding and the present, we know precious little about American history beyond the fact that many, many horses were involved in it, and some of the horses were standing on two or three legs whereas others were on as many as four.
We do know for certain, however, that the best people in America (as determined by their fitness for statuary) all fought for something called “the Confederacy.” Its geographical extent, as marked by flags and statues, remains very unclear. Some findings suggest it extended as far as Maine. As far as the statues of the bearded men on horses tell us, there was no reason not to fight for the Confederacy, although, inexplicably, some people seem to have abstained; the causes for the war remain shrouded in mystery.
It is a great source of sorrow to people who love American history that we don’t have any books that could possibly tell us what happened. All we have are the fragments of names and a few dates rendered in Roman numerals (America’s preferred system for math, if its statues are anything to go by, and they are the only thing to go by).
If only we could study a document or even a series of documents that tell of the past. If only there were all kinds of different documents from which to choose — primary accounts, some conflicting and some not, the accumulations of scholarship over generations, some hagiographies, others critical. If only we had vast amounts of information, accounts of military victories and accounts of social struggles, physical artifacts and photographs and architecture. If only history were something we got to write over and over together, more a palimpsest than a book, with missing stories inserted every day and old ones revised.
Alas, it is too bad there are only statues. But since statues are all we have, it seems that is what we will use.