Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

A Woman Clinging to the Cross: Toward a Rhetoric of Tombstones (1)

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

A Woman Clinging to the Cross: Toward a Rhetoric of Tombstones (1)

Article excerpt

In 1911, eleven-year-old Isabel Crixel celebrated her first communion by posing for a formal portrait at a studio in Brownsville, Texas (Fig. 1). Her sweet young face grave, she clings to a rough wooden cross in her white dress and veil, a rosary dangling from her clasped hands. Like many young girls in south Texas, she became part of a fad that swept the nation during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries with the force of a Billy Sunday crusade. As she told her granddaughter years later, posing in this fashion was "the thing to do" among her young friends. (2) Indeed, an 1897 stereopticon slide by B. W. Kilburn of Littleton, New Hampshire, suggests that the popularity of posing young women clinging to a cross was not limited to girls in Brownsville, Texas, and that it was a well-established trend by 1911. In another picture, a young woman is on her knees pressing the cross to her breast with her hair hanging down her back (Fig. 2). In addition, the pose is represented in other material forms from a silver-plated casket ornament sold through the 1882 Columbus Coffin Company Catalogue to a variety of tombstones offered by monument catalogs such as that produced by the Dimond Studios of Mount Vernon, New York. Statues and carvings of a woman clinging to, clutching, or embracing the cross appear in cemeteries from Woodlawn in the Bronx to Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia, and on the graves of both Catholics and Protestants (Figs. 3 and 4). All of these iconic representations refer to a single literary source: a line from Anglican minister Augustus M. Toplady's eighteenth-century hymn "Rock of Ages."

[FIGURES 1-4 OMITTED]

Using this pose both to celebrate milestones in the faith of living women and to memorialize the dead creates an interesting nexus of meaning among hymns, women, and graveyards, and it suggests that one cultural task of graveyards--like that of hymns during the period--was to create and, perhaps, enforce ideals that effectively shaped both lives and memories. In a recent article on Victorian animal artifacts, Katherine C. Grier proposes that such representations of material culture might be explored rhetorically, as a persuasive act rather than as a text to be read. She explains that material objects fit uneasily into the analytical framework that would make them texts with a language that can be interpreted in an orderly linear fashion. However, she argues, "artifacts are good for representing 'cultural categories, principles, and processes' as real entities," and she illustrates her Calvary Cemetery, Lexington, KY. point by briefly showing how the five components or canons of classical rhetoric suggest procedural questions that material objects with cultural significance might answer (69). Most of her article focuses on the stylistic elements of metaphor or metonymy, but, as she says, her purpose is to "suggest possibilities for future work" (66).

I would like to accept Grier's challenge by developing more fully a heuristic for analyzing the cultural and social aspects of gravemarkers based on the rhetorical canons developed by Aristotle and others. What I mean to emphasize is the dynamic element of memorial art, the part that creates what Walter Nash terms "complicity" between designer and audience, whether it is in extending and accepting an invitation to sit in a chair labeled with the name of the beloved dead--a contemporary memorial strategy employed at the site of the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City--or to imagine with poignant longing an empty chair at the family hearth that a popular epitaph of the late-nineteenth century describes (Nash 1). (3) As Richard E. Meyer observes, "one of the most fundamentally agreed upon principles of modern material culture studies" is that "artifacts, through a variety of complex and often interrelated manifestations, establish patterns of communication (and even dynamic interaction) with those who use or view them" ("Introduction" 1). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.