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Painters of Memory / 215 tation, signifying a speaker who is lost in his own platitudes, pompously holding forth on a subject of which he knows nothing—namely, the war from which Private Davis has “returned.” The line of identical black Model T Fords that is visible behind the crowd likewise complicates the painting’s meaning. In terms of composition , this string of automobiles creates a solid line of demarcation between the foreground and the background—between the cemetery and the distant expanse of fields—and thus contributes considerably to the illusion of depth. However, the townspeople’s appropriately funereal vehicles also carry thematic significance by hinting at the deadening conformity of small-­ town America. This may seem to be a stretch. However, by the time Curry began work on The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne , the cult of the automobile had became a well-­ established target in the “revolt against the village” school of Ameri­ can fiction, a Midwestern literary movement with close thematic ties to Curry’s more satirical Kansas paintings. For example, in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920), the preoccupation with motoring displayed by small-­ town physician Will Kennicott , along with virtually all of his male cronies, becomes a prominent measure of the cultural vacuity of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.104 Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, One of Ours (1922), likewise constructs the automobile as a symbol of rural Midwestern malaise. Significantly , the best driver in Cather’s narrative of early twentieth-­ century Nebraska is the unsympathetic Enid Royce, a temperance advocate, vegetarian , and would-­ be missionary. Used primarily to carry its operator from one meeting of self-­ righteous reformers to another, Enid’s Ford is described unpleasantly as a “black cubical object.”105 In both of these works, automobiles connote not freedom—not the open road—but the values of an oppressively insular small-­ town world where technology is valued over art, total compliance to social convention is demanded, and intellectualism is scorned. Would Private Davis, we wonder, have wanted to return to such a world? Curry, we know, left it as quickly as he could. And then there is the honor guard, whose members stand ready with their rifles and bugle, beneath flags that one can almost hear flapping in the prairie wind. Disconcertingly, the faces of these men—those that we can see—are interchangeable and expressionless, as if stamped out with a military mold. And two of the uniformed standard bearers look almost sinister, their features blotted out by the shadows of their steel helmets , giving them the eerie appearance of doughboys in gas masks. Indeed , these spectral figures—Curry’s version, perhaps, of the phantoms 216 / Painters of Memory who show up for the Victory Ball—remind one of the enlistees featured in the artist’s 1938 painting Parade to War, living men, marching to glory amid ticker tape and applause, who simultaneously assume the appearance of corpses (see fig. 21). Thus, into what appears initially as a stirring portrait of martial tribute, Curry inserts a subtle critique of military regimentation as well as a grim reminder of the horrors of modern industrialized warfare. In the end, then, The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne presents the First World War as an event that—in America, at least—defied translation into a stable body of collective memory. Whether representing the community, the church, the Ameri­ can Legion, or the army, the mourners depicted on Curry’s canvas all labor to fit Private Davis into various social narratives—metaphorical equivalents of the flag-­ draped casket that houses his remains. The preacher, his face dramatically lit from above, Bible clutched to his chest, eulogizes a fallen Protestant crusader. The legionnaires, on the other hand, enfold Private Davis into a stern tradition of service and manliness that joins together Ameri­ can soldiers of all 21. Parade to War, Allegory (1938) by John Steuart Curry (Ameri­ can, 1897–1946), oil on canvas, 47 13/16 x 63 13/16 in. Gift of Barnett Banks, Inc., AG.1991.4.1. Courtesy of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida. Painters of Memory / 217 wars—regardless of their causes or outcomes. Flags, flowers, sermons, and salutes—the painting brings together multiple forms of commemorative apparatus, all of which are intended to make sense of a young Ameri­ can’s death in the Great War, a death that in Davis’s case constituted an ironic “satire of circumstance” worthy of Thomas Hardy. But...


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