The Voyages Issue: Why Does Mount Rushmore Exist?

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I felt drawn to Mount Rushmore, instinctively, like a spawning fish to the head of a river. I wanted to look American bigness squarely in the face.

The Voyages Issue

Somewhere on the way to Mount Rushmore, we realized that none of us knew, for sure, which presidents were carved into the mountain. The image was so familiar that we had never really bothered to look closely. After some discussion, we managed to agree on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But who was the fourth? John Adams? Benjamin Franklin? Alexander Hamilton? We were just guessing figures from money. We had to look it up. It was Thomas Jefferson. I asked my son to draw me a picture, from memory, of Rushmore, and after several minutes of earnest work, he revealed something that looked like a police sketch of a middle-aged Beatles cover band that has been caught shoplifting after a gig at a strip mall. None of the presidents had a nose, Roosevelt’s glasses had fallen off and Jefferson (who sported a jet-black mop-top) was on the wrong side of Washington. Otherwise, we all agreed, the picture was excellent.

“I think I really nailed Abraham Lincoln,” my son said. “He has that long face and skinny chin.”

My wife read in the local paper about a man who was in trouble for setting off an elk stampede with a drone. We drove off into the South Dakota vastness.

The Black Hills are a geological oddity — an island of rock thrusting out from an ocean of prairie. They contain some of the oldest and hardest stone in the world; over the course of 70 million years or so, erosion has sculpted them into spindly towers and ragged loaves, 5,000-foot-high turrets protected by moats and moonscape boulders. To the Plains Indians, the area was supernaturally charged, a place of powerful spirits, sudden raging storms, magic caves and special trees — ponderosa pine, tall and straight and strong — that they liked to use for lodgepoles. The landscape was so rugged and remote that it managed to repel white civilization deep into the 19th century.

This changed suddenly in the 1870s, when the notorious George Armstrong Custer arrived to make a map of the Black Hills. (In a bizarre coincidence — history ripped from today’s headlines — Custer’s most trusted Indian guide joined the expedition from Standing Rock and was named Maga.) In the course of their exploring, Custer’s men discovered gold. Word flew across the nation (“From the grass roots down, it was ‘pay dirt’ ”), and before long a fire hose of white Americans went spraying into the isolated land, violating an Indian treaty with impunity, setting up mining towns and trading posts, blasting roads through mountains, changing the nature of the place forever.

Before long, of course, the boom went bust. Many miners left; the region’s economy sagged. In the 1920s, local boosters proposed an eccentric solution. What if some of the Black Hills’ ancient rock could be carved into a monument to American history — a patriotic tribute that would also serve, in this new era of automobiles, as a roadside attraction? Spindly granite towers, it was suggested, could be carved into free-standing statues honoring heroes of the American West: Red Cloud, Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark. Instead of gold, South Dakota could harvest tourists.

Only one American sculptor seemed up to the task. He was, like the sculpture he would create, a larger-than-life weirdo: John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, son of a Danish immigrant, friend of Auguste Rodin, publicity hound, populist, salesman, self-styled tough guy with a white Stetson and a flowing scarf and a dark, bushy mustache. At the time, Borglum was working on another huge sculpture chiseled into the front of a mountain: a tribute, in Georgia, to great heroes of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. (The project was initially sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and entangled with the Ku Klux Klan.)

When Borglum was enticed to visit the Black Hills, he saw presidents: Washington, Lincoln. Anything else, he argued, would be too limited, too provincial, not sufficiently star-spangled “U.S.A.!!!” Borglum believed that America was a special artistic challenge, a place so heroically grand that the effete styles of Europe could never hope to do it justice. “Art in America should be American,” he wrote, “drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement.” He accepted the challenge to transform the Black Hills.

From the beginning, the project struck many locals as absurd. Controversy raged in the newspapers. To carve statues in the mountains, one wrote, “would be as incongruous and ridiculous as keeping a cow in the rotunda of the Capitol building.” “Why not just paint a mustache on everything?” another asked.

Funding for Mount Rushmore was touch-and-go, as was political and public support. But Borglum would not give up. The project took far longer, and cost far more money, than anyone could have imagined. Logistics were murderously complex. Men were lowered over the rock face on sling chairs; carving was done mainly with dynamite and jackhammers. At one point, a crack running through the stone threatened to break Thomas Jefferson’s nose, so his face was blown off the mountain and started again in a different spot.

Mount Rushmore is not just big; it is about bigness — a monument to monumentalism. Borglum was obsessed with America’s size: the heroic story of a handful of tiny East Coast settlements growing to engulf an entire continent. The four presidents were chosen largely for their roles in this expansion. Jefferson, for instance, not only wrote the Declaration of Independence but also greatly increased the country via the Louisiana Purchase. Teddy Roosevelt oversaw the creation of the Panama Canal, which increased America’s global reach.

The sculpting of Mount Rushmore began in 1927, with a ceremony overseen by President Calvin Coolidge, who wore a comically large hat. Work spanned 14 years, encompassing some of the defining spasms of American history: the Great Depression, the beginning of World War II. Separate dedication ceremonies were held for each of the four faces; Franklin Roosevelt himself came to dedicate Jefferson. The sculpture was finished one month and one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Work would have continued — the plan was to depict each of the presidents down to the waist — but funding began to dry up again, and Borglum died, and after a few finishing touches, the figures were abandoned as good enough. This was precisely the moment when American influence was about to explode, the dawn of 50 years of prosperity and cultural dominance. Mount Rushmore was completed, conveniently, just in time to serve as a kind of superheated mascot for the mythology of the Greatest Generation and baby boomers: that America’s hugeness is bound up with its nobility, that it deservedly dominates the globe.

The granite of Mount Rushmore is so hard that the sculptures will erode at a rate of one inch every 10,000 years.

Several times, as we drove to Mount Rushmore, we worried that the road was too small for our car. We had rented a huge S.U.V., like a tank without the gun turret — a rolling monolith of American power — and the road to Rushmore was old, narrow and winding. It passed through forests of ponderosa pine; the trees held the snow way out on the tips of their branches, in clumps, as if they were clutching snowballs. The road, in summer, is loaded with traffic, but that morning we had it all to ourselves. The pavement was covered with a skin of snow; we chugged over it with total confidence. In this way, winding and winding, switchback after switchback, we made our way up the mountain.

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