Statues of Limitations

Why do we get so worked up over larger-than-life likenesses of heroes and icons? Because they're less about stone and bronze than what we're made of.

SOMETIME THIS SUMMER, PEDESTRIANS NEAR the intersection of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue in Austin will come upon a huge bronze of a berserk woman firing a cannon. No, she’s not trying to blow away the Goddess of Liberty perched on the Capitol dome, though that’s not altogether a bad idea. The bronze will commemorate an Austin innkeeper named Angelina Eberly, who, on that very spot in 1842, set it off, as they say, to warn her fellow citizens that a band of Texas Rangers was stealing the government archives. The Rangers were sent by that rascal Sam Houston, who believed that the capital of the young republic should be in his namesake city rather than the isolated village on the Western frontier that had recently changed its name from Waterloo. Angelina missed the Rangers but blew a hole in the General Land Office building and roused the populace, who chased down the thieves and recovered the archives. Her bold action is the reason that Austin is the state capital instead of a wide spot on the banks of the Colorado. Even so, a statue of Angelina isn’t every Austinite’s idea of a proper public monument. When a photograph of the model created by Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Pat Oliphant appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, some readers complained of the generous proportions of her bosoms. One irate caller said, “Angelina is no hoochie mama!”

Why all the fuss? Ask the folks in San Marcos who are in a snit because a statue of the legendary Texas Ranger Jack Hays has him wielding a pistol. This was no doubt the sculptor’s point: The old Indian fighter is celebrated for proving that the six-shooter was the ideal weapon for gunning down Comanche. Some people believe statues like this one send the wrong message, but messages, right or wrong, are what make them more than hunks of rock. They’re powerful statements of the values that a culture holds dear, as evidenced by the fact that every revolution concludes with an attack on the symbols of the previous regime. The toppling of the statue of Saddam in the center of Baghdad is only the most recent example of how people who have been betrayed take out their rage on their betrayer.

I’ve read that the gift from Major George Littlefield that established the Littlefield Fund for Southern History at the University of Texas was predicated on the condition that all statues on campus face south, in commemoration of his beloved Confederacy. Though statues have been installed over the years facing directions the major wouldn’t have approved of, mobs have yet to storm the Tower. At the southern edge of the campus there’s a fountain named for Littlefield, a monument much reviled by grand old man of letters J. Frank Dobie, who also suggested that UT turn the Tower on its side and run a porch along the front of it. I’ll bet that not one student in ten on the UT campus can tell you who Dobie or Littlefield were. On the other hand, almost everyone knows that when one views the statue of George Washington on the South Mall at just the right angle, the father of our country appears to be holding an erect penis rather than a sword. Supposedly, this was the sculptor’s revenge for some slight by his UT benefactors. (I wonder what Littlefield would have made of David Adickes’s 67-foot-high statue of Sam Houston: Before it was installed beside a busy freeway near Huntsville, the sculptor was asked to “fatten” the size of Houston’s crotch, no doubt as a nod to the general’s self-image.)

Curiously, the smaller towns and cities of Texas appear more aware of who they are and where they came from than do our major cities, Austin being an exception. Maybe it’s because the frontier hasn’t entirely vanished in places like Odessa, Fort Stockton, or Glen Rose, where giant fiberglass jackrabbits, roadrunners, dinosaurs, watermelons, mules, and pecans honor the past and proclaim the present. Lubbock has a statue of native son Buddy Holly, Austin has Stevie Ray Vaughan, and outside the library in Mason is a statue depicting Fred Gipson’s fictional Travis Coates and his dog, Old Yeller. Crystal City, proud producer of spinach, has Popeye, and Iraan has a huge dinosaur in its public park honoring V. T. Hamlin, the creator of the Alley Oop comic strip, whose inspiration for things prehistoric came while working as a newspaperman there. Public statues in cities, on the other hand, tend to be abstract works by famous sculptors, probably because the people who pay for them—developers and corporate executives—want monuments that offend no one.

When my wife, Phyllis, and I visited the Soviet Union in 1999, we joked about the number of statues of Lenin that had vanished since our guidebook had been published. One remaining statue we saw was a seventy-foot bronze Lenin that towered above Moscow’s Oktyabrsky Square. We speculated that it had been spared so that the old Bolshevik might be tormented a while longer by the sight of the neon-roofed Starlite Diner across the street. The motif of the diner was straight out of fifties America: bobby-socked waitresses serving frosted Cokes while Buddy Holly jammed on the jukebox. Elsewhere in Russia, we were surprised at the number of statues honoring poets and writers, long the conscience of that tragic country. A popular hangout for young people was a fountain just across from the Kremlin, where bronze sculptures illustrated characters from Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tales.

Texas has yet to produce a Pushkin or even a Joel Chandler Harris, but we have produced some first-rate writers, among them Lawrence Wright and Stephen Harrigan, both past contributors to this magazine, and the screenwriter Bill Wittliff, all of whom are founders of Austin-based Capital Area Statues, or CAST. The statue of Angelina Eberly is CAST’s second and most recent project, but a future one could be Varmint Park, where someday soon you may see Br’er Armadillo frolicking with Br’er Raccoon.

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week