In Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” rains deluge the town of Macondo until memory fails. People take to labeling things, like “doorknob.” When that is no longer enough, they append directions: “Turn to open door.” We thought of “One Hundred Years” recently because of an idea in passing in a magazine article from a year and a half ago that touched on the very real Madison Grant and what we have taken to calling The Great Forgetting.
Grant, who was born in New York City six months after Lee’s surrender, grew up with the American 19th century. His father, Gabriel, was a doctor and had been a Union Army surgeon and major who won the Medal of Honor. His mother inherited great wealth. Madison, the eldest of four children, went to private schools, then Yale, then Columbia Law School. He left the law to pursue his passion, conservation. He helped develop the first, model deer-hunting laws, in New York State, and helped save California’s redwoods. He co-founded the Bronx Zoo, and created the Bronx River Parkway, in 1907, the first American highway in a park-like setting.
Grant was, for his day, a progressive. He was also an ardent believer in eugenics, the movement that aimed to increase the genetic composition of the human race by encouraging its preferred white members to breed more while discouraging non-white populations. These notions of progress and white supremacy did not conflict for elites like Grant. His book, “The Passing of the Great Race,” detailing his eugenic ideas, was published by the prestigious Scribner’s imprint in 1916 to admiring reviews and, in several years, considerable sales.
To critics who wondered about the implications of such theorizing, the answer was the same: “It doesn’t matter how you feel about it; it’s science.” Speaking of a book meant to resemble Grant’s, in “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald has Tom Buchanan say, “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
It was the rise of the Nazis, who credited Grant’s ideas, that seemed to efface him. When Nazism reflected back his vision, writes Adam Serwer in The Atlantic, denial set in. “Even though the Germans had been directly influenced by Madison Grant and the American eugenics movement, when we fought Germany, because Germany was racist, racism became unacceptable in America,” Grant’s biographer, Jonathan Peter Spiro, told Serwer. “Our enemy was racist; therefore we adopted anti-racism as our creed.”
But the ghosts don’t go away.
David Starr Jordan has long been remembered by the things named for him at Indiana University, where he was the seventh president, and at Stanford, where he was the first. Hidden in plain sight among his less disputed accomplishments as an educator and taxonomist, a symbol of determination in the face of chaos, however, has been his work in eugenics, like his 1902 essay on the “Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit,” or that Jordan was chairman of the first Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeder’s Association – that’s breeding people – and successfully advocated for the compulsory sterilization of the “unfit.”
Last month, the IU Board of Trustees voted to take his name off its Jordan Hall as well as from a campus parking garage and a creek. At the same time, Stanford’s trustees announced it finally would change its Jordan Hall.
This is an extraordinary moment. The rains have finally ceased, we have been through the forgetting and now we are on to renaming.