Like so many evocative American places, the Newport, Rhode Island mansion The Breakers contains and connects to numerous histories, stories, and themes worth sharing. So in this series, I’ll highlight and analyze five such topics. As always, your thoughts will be very welcome too!
Of course my first instinct, as an AmericanStudier, as a public scholar, as a person deeply interested in the past, was to respond that of course we should preserve such historic sites. But if we take a step back and consider what the question would mean in a contemporary context, things get a bit more complicated. Can we imagine a future organization spending millions of dollars to preserve Donald Trump’s many homes? Oprah Winfrey’s Lake Como getaway? Bill Gates’s estate? Certainly I can imagine tourists a hundred years hence being interested in visiting those places—well, hopefully not the Donald’s homes; but yeah, probably them too—but is that a sufficient argument for them to be preserved? Or does there indeed have to be something architecturally or artistically significant, or something historically or culturally resonant (beyond their owners’ obvious prominence), to merit the preservation of a private home? And do these “white elephants” (as Henry James famously called them) make the cut?
The question thus isn’t quite as simple as I had first imagined. But my own answer would, I believe, be to point precisely to the topics covered in this week’s blog posts. A site like The Breakers is the repository of so many compelling and vital American histories and stories, so many moments and identities that can help us understand and analyze who we’ve been and who we are. Of course there would be ways to remember and tell those stories without preserving the house, but I do believe that historic sites provide a particularly effective grounding for them, a starting point from which visitors (like this AmericanStudier) can continue their investigations into those themes. I know that my own ideas about America were expanded and amplified by my visit to Newport and The Breakers, as they have been by all my AmericanStudies trips. So while I know it’s not entirely practical, I vote for preserving anything and everything that can help with such ongoing and inspiring AmericanStudying.
P.S. What do you think?