by Tim Gilmore, 12/22/2022
His face is falling apart. Beneath the magnolias, the poet’s visage looks mottled, venous blue. Standing beneath his 15 foot tall column, you can barely discern his lips, his nostrils, the sockets for his eyes. He looked proud once, proclaiming his love “like a red, red rose,” or bewailing a boy in a short tie, bowler hat and high-waisted suit, “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, / O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”
It’s true. Hardly the most literary city for most of its history, Jacksonville has boasted a bust of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns just north of Hogan’s Creek for almost a century.
(Jax, once besmirched as “the capital of South Georgia,” hasn’t historically been the most literate city either. As late as 1999, a Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. report called “Improving Adult Literacy” reported that Duval County had a “functional illiteracy” rate of 47 percent. Nearby Baker County’s rate was even higher, at 59 percent.)
When I was in Dublin, I dallied with the statue of James Joyce as every ten steps of the city came straight from Joyce’s 1920 novel Ulysses. In London, it seemed like every street hosted a plaque about Virginia Woolf writing a novel here, or T.S. Eliot penning a poem there. It was Edinburgh, however, that showed me what a true monument to a writer looked like. The dark gothic memorial to Sir Walter Scott is the second largest literary monument in the world, behind only Havana’s José Martí. I only saw the Robert Burns memorial there the morning I caught my flight home.
It’s not so strange, however, to find a memorial to Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard, beneath a magnolia in the Deep South in Springfield Park, until recently named for the Confederacy. In an unctuous and sentimental tenor, the South once pictured itself in romance and honor, even chivalry, standing against a treacherous North.
Much of the white population of the South had directly descended from Scottish immigrants, branches of my family tree included. They were tough proud people, forged in the Calvinist foundation that each person is, as The Book of Isaiah says, an “unclean thing,” with “all our righteousness as filthy rags.” It was easy, too easy, for white Southerners to see the South-as-Scotland fighting honorably against the tyranny of the North-as-England. The South’s favorite novel was hardly Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
So it makes sense that D.W. Griffith’s despicable 1915 film Birth of a Nation, originally known as The Clansman, depicted the original Ku Klux Klan, born from the death of the Confederacy in 1865, as Christian knights on horseback. And it makes sense that the KKK reformed itself the year of the film, having been broken up by Congress in 1871.
And it’s why, in 1883, writing for Harper’s Magazine, Mark Twain tore savagely into the legacy of the Scottish novelist: “Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.”
Then, 250 words later, Twain lay Sir Walter’s disemboweled carcass on the doorstep of the South. He blames Walter Scott for the Civil War: “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.”
Whatever Mark Twain said about Sir Walter Scott and the South, however, monuments to Robert Burns exist all over the world. Fans of British literature everywhere celebrate Burns Night and feast at Burns Suppers on January 25th, the Scottish bard’s birthday. Love for Rabbie Burns seems less categorizable than Sir Walter’s long-waned fandom. A partial list of Burns monument sites in the U.S. includes Houston and Atlanta, Boston and New York City, Denver and Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh, San Francisco and St. Louis; Cheyenne, Wyoming and Barre, Vermont.
The plaque at the bottom of Jacksonville’s monument says it was erected by the Robert Burns Association of Jacksonville. Similar Robert Burns Associations proliferated across the country in the early 20th century. Few Burns monuments have materialized in the U.S. since Jacksonville’s was dedicated in 1930.
From the 19-aughts through the ’20s, local newspapers carried annual news briefs about the Burns Association’s celebrations of the poet’s birthday. A mid-December 1905 report said the Burns Association would “erect a building for the society.” The plan dissipated, though The Gainesville Sun quoted Burns himself in promising it: “Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled, / Scots, wham Bruce has aften led; / Welcome to your gory bed, / Or to victory!”
In 1914, The Ocala Banner reported on a Burns Night Supper held by the association in Jacksonville, “Drawn together by the law of vibration and responding to the spirit and sentiment of the occasion, the annual observance of the birthday anniversary of Robert Burns, the immortal poet […] in the hall of the club house of the Order of the Moose on Ashley Street.”
One of the names on the dedicatory plaque in Springfield Park is that of James Stevens Maxwell, a Miami attorney who didn’t live to see the Burns monument he’d envisioned for years. His November 21, 1923 obituary in The Miami News, which bore the headline, “Prominent Attorney of Miami is Called by Angel of Death,” said Maxwell, whose “family came to Florida from Georgia,” was “of Scotch descent” and that he’d served as president of the Robert Burns Association of Jacksonville “for several years.”
In 1928, at the height of Prohibition, the chaplain of the Robert Burns Memorial Association in Tampa, a “Rev. Dr. Wylie,” issued a public proclamation that he “regret[ed] that Burns drank so much.” Wylie said, “It is too bad, but it is not certain that he would have written the same poetry on an ice-water diet.”
In 1930, when Mayor John T. Alsop spoke at the monument’s dedication, it was customary for businessmen to take Wednesday afternoons off. A small crowd of professional men made their way into the shadow of the much taller Allen George Newman sculpture in the Confederate memorial schmaltzily called (and thus necessitating Mark Twain’s case against the South’s use of Sir Walter Scott all over again) “In Memory of Our Women of the Southland.”
Mayor Alsop said, “Our people are becoming more interested in making this city a cultural city.” He called Jacksonville “now the finest place on earth,” but said it needed “to continue to be a better place in which to live.” The city’s main newspaper called his speech “brief but inspiring.”
Then the local Burns Association faltered and faded. The neighborhood of Springfield was doing the same. After the next world war, the whole central city faltered. The statue faded and lost definition. Most people no longer knew it was there and most of the people who knew it was there had no idea to whom the fading face belonged.
In his late 40s, a hypergraphic writer born and based in Jacksonville, whose father had come down from Georgia when Jax was what writer Harry Crews called a “city of broken farmers,” kept coming down to stare up at the increasingly faceless face of Rabbie Burns o’ the Magnolias. His father had bought him a “Great Illustrated Classics” version of Scott’s Ivanhoe when he was a little boy. He’d recently visited Edinburgh and the Brontes’ home in Haworth, England and Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District. He’s seen Jax residents carry picket signs in angry protest when the city raised funds for libraries. He’s seen the 200 foot tall Walter Scott Monument off St. Andrew Square at Princes Street. He wants everyone in his hometown who reads this story to visit the “Local Authors” section at Chamblin Bookmine, the largest bookstore in the South.
Then stop by and see the Bard in Springfield Park, sing a line of “Auld Lang Syne,” quote the “Address to a Haggis,” or, “Gae down by Faile, and taste the ale, / And tak a look o’ Mysie; / She’s dour and din, a deil within, / But aiblins she may please ye.”