Scholars are more familiar with the cultural and political roles of the neoclassical and Gothic revivals in American history than they are with those of the Egyptian revival. Joy Giguere’s recent book, Characteristically American, capably addresses this gap in our historical knowledge by examining the impact of the Egyptian revival on commemorative monuments and memorials within the architectural revivalism between 1790 and 1930. She argues that an urban, professional middle class responded to European aspersions about the lack of American culture, refinement, and history by legitimizing the cultural heritage of the young republic through the cultural legacy of ancient Egypt. As a result, these professionals combined beliefs in American exceptionalism, which were rooted in continental expansion, technological ingenuity, and political institutional superiority, with the cultural authority of ancient Egypt to position the United States as one of the great nations of the world. After the Napoleonic campaigns opened Egypt to the West, an American “Egyptomania” that materialized in popular entertainments and scholarly research shaped conceptions of national identity and provided the social context for the Egyptian revival.
Much of Giguere’s book focuses on Egyptian revival architecture in local, national, public, and private contexts. The rural cemetery movement created natural settings that offered a “rural retreat for the living as well as a peaceful and well-maintained respite for the dead” [End Page 759] within an urbanizing and industrializing America. The Mt. Auburn Cemetery Gateway, for example, displayed the permanence, grandeur, and technical brilliance of Egyptian architecture while substituting Christian elements for pagan ones. In the 1820s, the Egyptian obelisk emerged as the predominant form for commemorating those who served during the American Revolution. Orations given to initiate the construction of obelisk memorials or to celebrate their completion wedded the gratitude of a nation, national honor, and individual character to the nation’s founding, and in the process, defined a national style for memorialization.
Giguere’s chapters on Civil War memorials and on the Washington Monument are her strongest. The author situates the Civil War monuments within the sectional and ideological politics of postbellum America. Her analysis of the Sphinx monument in Mt. Auburn Cemetery examines the cultural politics of Civil War memorials, specifically the persistent racial hierarchies in American society and the racialized perspective of its designer. If the Mt. Auburn Sphinx captured the sectional politics of the republic, then the Washington Monument symbolized the reunification and perpetuity of the Union. In the eyes of many, the struggle to complete the monument as well as its sheer size and solidity testified to the strength and perpetuity of the Union.
Despite the efforts by orators, designers, and others to maintain the original interpretations of these memorials, public contestation over their cultural meanings occurred in subsequent decades. Despite the criticisms of the eclecticism of American architecture, the emergence of professional archaeology in the late nineteenth century boosted the Egyptian revival within mainstream cultural and intellectual circles. By the early 1900s, the linking of the obelisk form to its Egyptian origins had given way to reflexive references to the Washington Monument, indicating that the Egyptian revival had passed and had become Americanized.
Giguere’s facility for architectural analysis is evident, but the book’s primary weakness is the lack of depth of the historical context in some [End Page 760] of its chapters, which refer to historical developments and issues rather than interrogate their importance to its architectural focus. Giguere’s discussion of the rural cemetery movement, for example, needed to be situated as part of the reconciliation of urban, industrial development with an older agrarian ideology. She identifies the criticisms of the Washington Monument for its resemblance to industrial forms but never locates their source in the debates over the changing social, cultural, and environmental landscape of industrialization. Technical achievements, such as the elevator within the Washington Monument and later its electric lights, could have been examined within the discourse over the positive and negative effects of technological spectacle, scale, and achievement during the industrial age. In her discussion...