There are half a dozen charming little boroughs and townships between the (comparatively) bustling cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was in one of them yesterday shopping and as I departed up Main Street I spotted out of the corner of my eye a really serious monument. You know me: I brought the car to a screeching halt and looked for a parking place.

Figure 1. Old Forge War Memorial. Old Forge, PA. Photo: author.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t have all the answers. Which is good: informed speculation is my line. There’s precious little about this monument on the interwebs, and what there is effectively repeats what’s inscribed on the monument. I’d love to know the sculptor and the company he or she worked for. In any event, the central die states:

WORLD           [image of M-1 rifle]               WORLD
WAR I              [image of M-1 helmet]        WAR II
1917                                                                   1941
1918                                                                   1945

Additional blocks of light gray granite on either side of the die commemorate Korea and Vietnam. I don’t think they were originally part of the memorial (and the inscriptions they bear certainly not, if the 1949 notice on the main inscription is true). I wonder about all of the light-granite portions of the monument, for that matter, but let it rest.

The monument is protected from errant drivers crashing into it from the street by a hefty pipe rail; some of this element’s ugliness has been expiated by the addition of lilies and numerous flags, some of them supported by those little badges you see in cemeteries: a 5-pointed star for the Civil War, the Ruptured Duck in its circle for WW II, and so on.

Whatever the origin of the gray blocks, the citizens of Old Forge made a good decision in raising the marble portions of the monument well above the fray, where they can be spotted by passersby.

Figure 2. Old Forge War Memorial. Detail: herm and figure. Old Forge, PA. Photo: author.

Sitting above all is a herm, a pedestal that gets wider as it rises. It has a very nice oak-leaf design in a relief band at the top (figures 2,3) which catches the sun nicely.

Figure 3. Old Forge War Memorial. Detail: relief band on herm depicting oak leaves. Old Forge, PA. Photo: author.

The marble is a creamier white than that used in the figure and has visible veins which weathering is turning into cracks. Such a pedestal must originally have been topped with something; that’s its function. I didn’t climb up to see if there were any attachment marks for an object (the police station is across the street), but I’d expect there to have been an urn at least, and a portrait bust of an idealized soldier at best. I can point to an example of the latter, life-sized, in the war memorial in the town of Throop about ten miles north of Old Forge (figures 4, 4a).

The female figure (figure 2, 5) is positioned at the foot of the pedestal, her body turned away from it. She sits on a base carved to resemble rustic rock face (she and the base are carved from a monolith of white marble with grey streaks) in front of the herm.

Figure 5. Old Forge War Memorial. Detail: Female figure. Old Forge, PA. Photo: author.

In form, the rock base is a little like the notional top of a staircase reaching up to the pedestal. The rectilinear forms of the rock base are picked up by the lower parts of the woman’s body; what I mean is that her right leg, for example, is unrealistically squared off so that it is even with the front of the rustic rock she is seated on (figure 5). I presume the size of the block the carver had necessitated this. Note, too, that the folds of her gown echo the forms of the rock she’s seated on—a thoughtful touch (figures 2, 4).

Figure 6. Old Forge War Memorial. Detail: female figure viewed from south. Old Forge, PA. Photo: author.

But the upper part of the woman’s body and her head are both fine, naturalistic work (figures 2, 5, 6, 7, 8). With her right hand she clutches a floral wreath to her right breast; the drapery has fallen from her right shoulder and is held up by the wreath. Her left arm falls to a portion of the rock base, with only her fingers, in a mannered pose, touching it. The voluminous drapery on her left side encloses the arm and drops onto the rock. Like the drapery on the right side, it has fallen from her shoulder, in this case exposing her breast.

The head is averted slightly toward the pedestal and raised as though in the act of turning toward whatever had been placed by the sculptor atop the herm. The expression of the face is plaintive and longing; the gaze is not toward the herm or the putative object that sat atop it. The hair is loose and cascades down the back (figures 7, 8). The modeling of the upper torso, neck, and head shows sensitivity and talent. In the framework of the monument as it now stands, I suppose the figure may be meant as a personification of grief, or an exemplary figure of a mourning wife left behind by her husband who has been killed in action.

The female figure is either a re-purposed piece of funerary art or has been directly derived from one. The plaintive expression, the garland, and the gown fallen from the shoulders in the distraction of grief are all stereotypical forms found, in varying body postures (usually with the head cast down), in boneyards across the United States (figures 9-12). The figure is emphatically not in the style of 1949, but more like that of 1919 or 1900.

Curiously, the monument expressly commemorates those who served, rather than those who died in war. Our figure would be quite appropriate in a memorial to war dead; but is out of tune when used also to commemorate the survivors.

So pieces of this monument point in various directions, and to various times. The inscriptions point to two campaigns of construction, one in 1949 and one when it was decided to add Korea and Vietnam. I’d hazard the conjecture that originally there was a monument to WWI war dead which looked quite different from what we now see. It may even have been somewhere else.

When the Greatest Generation came home it was decided to update the monument to give credit to the WW II veterans, not just the casualties. Though intended to express grief rather than ‘the tribute of a grateful nation,’ the splendid figure was reused, and the herm was repurposed or made new for the 1949 phase. With more enthusiasm than careful thought, these elements, old and new, were combined into a double monument, and at a later date, as we saw, Korea and Vietnam were added. But what’s important is that the grieving figure was preserved. Thank you , citizens of Old Forge!

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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