Written in Stone

Public Monuments in Changing Societies

Written in Stone

Public Planet Books

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Book Pages: 160 Illustrations: 19 b&w photographs Published: August 1998

American Studies, History > U.S. History, Law > Legal History

Is it “Stalinist” for a formerly communist country to tear down a statue of Stalin? Should the Confederate flag be allowed to fly over the South Carolina state capitol? Is it possible for America to honor General Custer and the Sioux Nation, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln? Indeed, can a liberal, multicultural society memorialize anyone at all, or is it committed to a strict neutrality about the quality of the lives led by its citizens?

In Written in Stone, legal scholar Sanford Levinson considers the tangled responses of ever-changing societies to the monuments and commemorations created by past regimes or outmoded cultural and political systems. Drawing on examples from Albania to Zimbabwe, from Moscow to Managua, and paying particular attention to examples throughout the American South, Levinson looks at social and legal arguments regarding the display, construction, modification, and destruction of public monuments. He asks what kinds of claims the past has on the present, particularly if the present is defined in dramatic opposition to its past values. In addition, he addresses the possibilities for responding to the use and abuse of public spaces and explores how a culture might memorialize its historical figures and events in ways that are beneficial to all its members.

Written in Stone is a meditation on how national cultures have been or may yet be defined through the deployment of public monuments. It adds a thoughtful and crucial voice into debates surrounding historical accuracy and representation, and will be welcomed by the many readers concerned with such issues.


“[A]n insightful commentary on the question of how Americans relate their pride and respect for their vital national consensus. . . . Levinson’s book is a positive contribution to the ongoing discussion [of] . . . what it means to be an American.” — Walter R. Johnson , Red River Valley Historical Journal

“[W]onderfully provocative and gracefully written. . . .” — Edward T. Linenthal , Law and Social Inquiry

“In his intriguing book . . . Levinson writes clearly and insightfully about profound themes that are seldom raised. . . . [A] useful and unique look at public monuments in light of the Fourteenth Amendment.” — Susan Nichols , Association for Living History Farm and Agricultural Museums Bulletin

“Levinson has written a fascinating reflection on the transmission of cultural meaning through the use of public space. His book is both thought provoking and well written. . . . Levinson succeeds in immersing the reader in the difficult questions posed by monuments in a multicultural society—and their intractability.” — Benjamin Means, Michigan Law Review

“Levinson weigh[s] thoughtfully the expense of intransigence and the cost of toleration, particularly in adjudicating the challenges to Confederate emblems in the flags still flying over Southern statehouses.” — Kathleen Diffley, American Literary History

“Planners, arts administrators, and elected members would do well to read this eloquent essay.” — Marion Roberts , Journal of Urban Design

"[T]his book is potentially a marvelous teaching assignment: brief, eminently readable, intensely interesting, and chock full of highly debatable issues whose ideal solutions are murkier than the Great Dismal Swamp. It can be used successfully in a whole array of introductory courses —and probably will."
American Studies

"One of the many exceptional things about the book is that the author moves at will from the squabbling over identities or multiculturalism to solemn constitutional readings and court cases, and vice versa. . . . Written in Stone awakens wonder about the emotions the public may feel as it passes through monumental public spaces. . . . Professor Levinson has strikingly presented a cutthroat competition for the collective memory of Americans. . . . [This] is an extraordinary work, modest in size, a mere 150 pages, an extended essay, really, sure in its handling of troubling issues, sophisticated in the legal customary, and historiographical positions it recognizes, daring to propose solutions, uneasy about the chance of their success, treasurable as much for the learning it imparts as for the thought and reverie that it smoothly slips the reader." — Texas Law Review

"This essay by a professor of law at the University of Texas may promote clear thinking on how we the people should commemorate the past when our views of the past differ or change." — Harvard Magazine

“In Written in Stone, Levinson bravely confronts another article of constitutional faith, freedom of speech. Instead of the conventional examination of an individual’s right to speak without the interference from government, however, he looks at what protections the Bill of Rights provides for government-sanctioned speech.” — Peter Blake , Times Literary Supplement

"[W]ell-written, thought-provoking. . . . A legal scholar, Levinson quite naturally turns to the law for answers. His discussions of whether the Constitution (specifically the First and Fourteenth amendments) ‘speaks with enough clarity to invalidate the display of the Confederate battle flag or the raising of certain monuments’ is painstaking, yet clear enough for the average non-lawyer to read. And his conclusion, that the courts are (or should be) ‘quite limited in their actual power when what is at stake is the politics of cultural meaning,’ seems to me to be the right one." — The Washington Post

"In Written in Stone, Sanford Levinson suggests that rather than addressing the greatest challenge facing our multicultural society—namely, how to fashion ‘unum out of the pluribus of American society’—our efforts at achieving reconciliation seem to have produced increasingly polarized pockets of unums." — The American Prospect

“A profound and engrossing meditation on historical memory and national commemoration. It is so skillfully composed and illustrated with such striking examples that I read it in a —Michael Walzer, author of On Toleration — Michael Walzer, author of On Toleration

“Much has been written about the controversy over public presentations of history, but rarely has the question of how to memorialize our past received the thoughtful, incisive, and fair-minded analysis provided by Sanford Levinson.” — Eric Foner, author of The Story of American Freedom

“Sanford Levinson has written a wonderfully wise and informed essay on the issue of how we commemorate the past when the past keeps on changing.” — Nathan Glazer, author of We Are All Multiculturalists Now

“This remarkable book addresses an issue as old as civilization and as topical as this morning’s newspaper. No reader of Levinson’s cultivated, nuanced, and balanced narrative will ever view a public monument in quite the same way.” — Norman Dorsen; President, ACLU, 1976–1991


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Sanford Levinson is Professor of Law at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author and editor of numerous books including Constitutional Faith and Interpreting Law and Literature (with Steven Mailloux).

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2220-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2204-7
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