On this Veterans Day, as we pause to remember the contributions — and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice — made by the men and women of our nation’s armed forces, it’s interesting to look back on a time when a local monument to this country’s veterans was not only controversial, the work itself was considered “a vicious beast.”
I’m talking about the famous Doughboy Statue in Overton Park.
Let’s get something straight right now: Nobody is buried beneath this statue, the centerpiece of the new Veterans Plaza in the park. Instead, the massive monument honors “the memory of Memphis and Shelby County men who gave their lives to their country in the Great War,” according to the massive plaque mounted on its base. And back then, they were talking about World War I. The plaque holds the “1917-1919 Honor Roll” and carries 230 names.
The old Doughboy has endured its own battles, that’s for sure. It was the brainchild of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who raised funds “with the aid of a grateful public and schoolchildren” (according to a smaller plaque mounted on the back of the base) and hired an out-of-town sculptor named Nancy Coonsman Hahn to erect a monument to America’s fighting spirit. Although I’ve been unable to find out just how much the piece cost, I did turn up old newspaper articles that tracked a subscription drive to raise funds for its massive stone base, and that alone was $3,500.
Anyway, the statue — depicting a grim-faced U.S. Army soldier clambering over a rock with his bayonet drawn — went up in Overton Park on September 21, 1926. And some people were certainly not happy with it. Michael Abt, a Tech High School art teacher and sculptor (who gained fame for designing most of the Cotton Carnival floats), caused quite a stir in the newspapers back then by calling the statue “the attack of a vicious beast.”
What’s more, he griped to the local Artists Guild that it defies “every elementary principle known to sculpture: bad modeling, bad composition, and bad mounting. The figure is distorted. Look at the arms in proportion to the rest of the body. The clay is mistreated, the general attitude is unnatural, and a dozen — yes, dozens — of other things.”
Worst of all, Abt said, was that it “carries the spirit of a beast, instead of the spirit of noble defense of a cause.”
The sculptor herself, however, stood by her guns (so to speak). “The statue seemed overwhelmingly huge in my studio,” Hahn told the newspapers, when she came to Memphis to see her work in place, “but I like the way it fits in with the surroundings at the park, and I think the location is just right.” Memphian Frank Hubert Venn, who designed the base, had this to say about Abt’s criticism: nothing. “I have nothing to say,” he told reporters. “The Doughboy speaks for itself. He’s a soldier — a fighting man. That’s all.”
But that was NOT all. A few months later, somebody griped that the soldier’s stance was all wrong. It seems there are very particular rules to follow in hand-to-hand combat, and if you’re charging toward the enemy with your bayonet, you’d better have your left foot forward. Our Doughboy is stepping forward with his right foot.
This caused quite a brouhaha, until someone finally checked with the U.S. Army, and under the manual titled Instructions No. 5-25: The Soldier: Instructions and Qualifications with the Bayonet, it was discovered that under certain circumstances “it is perfectly correct for a soldier to put his right foot forward,” especially in the “long thrust” and “short thrust” positions. It’s also okay if you are doing a “right parry.” If, however, you are doing the “low parry left” maneuver, you’d better keep your left foot forward, or you might stumble and fall. (I’m not making this up, by the way.)
Anyway, the Doughboy has survived these and other attacks (from paint to pigeons) over the years. For years, the statue was surrounded by a thick hedge, so from certain angles it looked like he was clambering over a hill, but that got pulled down. The whole area has been revamped in recent years, with other fine monuments erected to local soldiers lost in battle in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.
For a “vicious beast,” I personally think he looks mighty grand.