J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Israel Putnam mural up in the air at Greenwich

This week the Stamford Advocate ran a story, since picked up by the AP and other newspapers, about discussions in Greenwich, Connecticut, on whether to return a large mural titled "The Life and Times of General Israel Putnam of Connecticut," by James Daugherty, to a public school now that both painting and building have been refurbished. It will be interesting to see if this story gets any traction, or any spin.

Already some folks at FreeRepublic.com are fulminating about "political correctness," that conveniently selective and short-sighted complaint. Not noted by those champions of telling children all about our nation's history in the same way we supposedly always have are these points:

  • The Putnam painting wasn't created to educate schoolchildren; it was designed for wall space in the First Selectman's office. For many years after it was moved to the school building, says the current PTA president, it was "too dirty and hung too high for the students to really see what was going on."
  • The painting is hardly being suppressed. It's on display at the Greenwich Library, which would be happy to keep it.
  • The mural is a product of Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, derided by a previous generation of conservatives as a source of wasteful, big-government spending. The FreeRepublic crowd thus insists that patriotism demands that kids continue to benefit from FDR's legacy. Well, of course.
Here's Rebecca E. Lawton's thorough study of Daugherty and his work. The Stamford Advocate offers an image of the mural itself [well, it did, but now that link is unavailable]. It shows (left to right) Putnam killing a wolf on his farm—an apparently true story already well known by the Revolution; Putnam leading men in battle from horseback; and a younger Putnam tied to a stake and about to be killed by Native Americans (he survived). The swirling draftsmanship looks typical for the 1930s, but the colors seem brighter. In fact, I think the mural's style, flamboyant and lurid to today's eyes, might make its subjects seem more frightening to small children. School cafeteria food can be unappetizing enough already.

The panel at center might depict a moment in Putnam's Revolutionary career, early 1778, when he steered his horse down a long flight of stone steps. Greenwich reenacted that event in 1935. The legendary version says the general rode all the way down. In his application for a pension, Joseph Rundel, born in 1762 and working as Putnam's "waiter" at that time, described what he saw:
General Putnam ordered his men to retreat and save themselves as best they could. He also retreated on his horse at full speed, pursued closely by the British horse. He made down a flight of stone steps, the top of which were about sixty rods (I should think) from the meetinghouse. He did not ride down more than fifteen or twenty of them (there being, I think, about one hundred of them in the whole). He then dismounted and led down the horse as fast as possible. I was at the bottom of the steps as soon as he was. He then mounted his horse, told me to make my escape to a swamp not far off, and he rode off.
That's from John Dann's collection of notable pension applications called The Revolution Remembered, a fine book.


Reginleif said...

In fact, I think the mural's style, flamboyant and lurid to today's eyes, might make its subjects seem more frightening to small children.

ONOZ, da cheeldwun might be twaumatized!!!

Good ghod, how did my and previous generations survive all those violent movies and "Roadrunner" cartoons without prissy suburban soccer mommies to shield our delicate sensibilities?

J. L. Bell said...

Let's leave aside the mother issues, please. They seem to be getting in the way of recognizing a difference between Roadrunner cartoon violence and a painting of a man being tortured.

It seems significant to me that this mural wasn't intended for an elementary school. It was created for the office of a town selectman. Even now, it remains on public display in the town library, so no one can complain it's been hidden away.

Was a scene of torture appropriate for a government office in the 1930s? Presumably it was acceptable then because (a) Putnam survived, and (b) the torturers were the ENEMY.

And as I wrote before, I suspect some of the modern objection to the scene has to do with changing aesthetic sensibilities rather than changing sensitivity to torture itself.

Then again, this week Congress confirmed that torture is now U.S. federal policy. Well, we'd call such treatment "torture" if it were inflicted on U.S. soldiers by our nation's enemies.