Americans love their relics. Like medieval pilgrims, we moderns preserve the ancient notion that old stuff—baubles, keepsakes, mementos—can somehow reunite us with lost loved ones and bygone years. Or do we? This question frames Teresa Barnett’s erudite investigation into the status of relics in nineteenth-century America. Her answer unfolds in three acts. The first amounts to an extended refutation of “the wholesale equation of historical relics with saints’ relics,” a tendency among historians that “ultimately obscures more than it illuminates” (p. 50). Part two figures the Civil War as a flash-point in the social life of American relics, particularly with regard to the sentimental tradition. A concluding chapter charts the displacement of relics by other forms of historical representation, a shift that corresponded with the rise of modern museums near the turn of the last century.
Historians of collecting, memory, and museums will find much that is familiar here. In fact, the looming presence of scholars like Tony Benet, Steven Conn, and Susan Stewart recall object studies from the height of the cultural turn. What sets Sacred Relics apart, according to Barnett, is its interest in charting “an alternative genealogy of the historical,” loosened from the purview of wealthy collectors, and that takes “seriously the relationships that old things as old things are capable of initiating” (pp. 3–4). These are important goals that Barnett most closely achieves by creatively reimagining nineteenth-century encounters with decaying bodies. By sifting through memoirs and other first-hand accounts of visits to tombs—including George Whitfield’s and George Washington’s—Barnett chips away at the myth of medieval persistence by demonstrating that some nineteenth-century Americans understood corpses not as saints’ relics, but as indices of a distinctly modern, historical past.
In fact, as Barnett demonstrates, relics lived mostly secular lives [End Page 686] during the early years of the nation. The increasing prevalence of “sacred” relics in Victorian America, she argues, did not owe to the persistence of old object sensibilities so much as it did to the peculiarities of an era during which “the vocabulary of the sacred was increasingly absorbed into the discourse of sentimentality” (p. 53). Barnett documents this absorption in literary culture and identifies its apogee in the Civil War. The scattering of stuff during the war—bodies, gear, clothing—across the landscape triggered an unprecedented “American relic collecting tradition” even among people whose class status barred them from the ranks of high antiquarianism (p. 80). The sentimental mementos they collected did real work. Not only did they help process the experience of mass violence, they framed the memory of the war in ways that served competing ideological agendas. Barnett devotes a chapter, for instance, to the place of ritualized sacred relics in postwar Lost Cause commemorations, particularly in southern relic museums such as those that emerged in Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans after the war.
Barnett concludes by describing how the purchase on memory of the sentimental relic succumbed to the demand among modern museums for evidentiary objects, denatured things supporting new regimes of professionalized scientific knowledge. The “waning of the relic” is never complete, however, and Barnett notes a recent “reemergence of the relic into the space of contemporary historical representation” (p. 195). I suspect that this latest reemergence might complicate Barnett’s analysis were she to extend it into our own time. In fact, Barnett’s careful teasing out of true relics from other object phenomena, which is impressive for its complexity and theoretical sophistication, also makes us wonder: how stable is “relic,” after all, as a category of historical analysis? Answering that question will require a fuller engagement with actual objects (remarkably, Sacred Relics includes no images) than is achieved here. As regards the nineteenth century, it will most certainly require more careful attention to institutions such as slavery and industrial capitalism that too frequently blurred the lines between people and objects. [End Page 687]
SETH C. BRUGGEMAN is an associate professor...