Culture, History

Mount Rushmore: Check it Out While You Still Can!


Ninety-five years ago today, on October, 4, 1927, John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, son of Danish immigrants, and a prominent American sculptor, set chisel and dynamite to stone and began what is his best-known work, the carvings of the 60-foot-high heads of four American Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt into the side of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.

400 workers, 450,000 pounds of rock removal, and 14 years later, he died, and the few remaining bits of his masterwork were completed that same year by his son, Lincoln Borglum.

Gutzon Borglum was born in St. Charles, Idaho Territory, on March 25, 1867. His father was a woodcarver who later established a homeopathic medical practice, and the family moved around the American West throughout Gutzon’s youth. The boy became interested in art at a young age, and with the help of some family friends and a few commissions, was able to leave the United States and study in Europe for two years in his early twenties. During this time, he became acquainted with, and forged a close friendship with, August Rodin, sculptor of The Thinker. Borglum returned to the United States from England in 1901.

His art could be controversial, as evidenced by the ruckus that erupted over an early project, his statues of angels for the church of St. John the Divine in New York City. Many of the clergy objected that Borglum had feminized the angels’ features too much, and required him to re-cast some of them with a more masculine look. A spirited public debate ensued as to whether angels were masculine or feminine (a prefiguration of today’s “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” or perhaps even “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”):

The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this

“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”

The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.

Having unsettled the spirits, and ruffled the feathers, of his clerical friends, Borglum moved on and began to develop a growing interest in monumental art and the “emotional impact of volume.” One of his first efforts in this regard, his marble carving of the head of Abraham Lincoln is now in the United States Capitol.

In 1923, at the request of the Daughters of the Confederacy, Borglum began work on a new commission, a plan for a massive carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and a column of Confederate soldiers on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia. Controversy followed him again, however, and he was dismissed from the project. None of Borglum’s original work remains in the Stone Mountain carving today.

But his work at Stone Mountain garnered him some notoriety, and he was soon contacted by the State of South Dakota and asked to carve a new monument into the side of a mountain in the Black Hills.

The rest, as they say, is history. For now.

Gutzon Borglum was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan (his dismissal from the Stone Mountain project probably came about because of political infighting within the Klan, who were largely underwriting the cost of the sculpture). But even without that inconvenient and troubling part of his history, some of his sculptures have come under fire in recent times because of their commemoration of events that many contemporary citizens would rather ignore, forget, or pass over entirely.

Even Mount Rushmore, Borglum’s crowning achievement, and one that might be expected to be set in stone forever, is not immune from these depredations. What began (some think) as a rhetorical question posed by the Right (“What’s next? Mount Rushmore?”) is now being taken seriously by the Left, which sees it as a monument to white conquest, Manifest Destiny, and the patriarchy. Exercises in self-loathing abound, both in country and with the able assistance of the Baghdad British Broadcasting Corporation, abroad. Read a few of these articles, and it’s hard not to conclude that it’s only a matter of time before the monument itself is history, and the men it commemorates are reviled, if not forgotten entirely. (To this point, though, the campaign to remove the carvings on Mount Rushmore has not garnered nearly the steam of the one to remove the Stone Mountain carvings, which is heated and gaining traction despite the admittedly overwhelming cost of removal, and the state law forbidding it.)

The only question, it seems sometimes, is whether the outcome is inevitable, and if so, how long it will take.

3 thoughts on “Mount Rushmore: Check it Out While You Still Can!”

  1. My opinion on Mt. Rushmore is going to be controversial: I’m not comfortable with it, especially not with Teddy Roosevelt’s visage (IHMO, he was nowhere nearly so important as Lincoln, Washington, or Jefferson, even if he still loomed large in people’s minds at that time). It was borne of a time in US history where our society was flirting heavily with fascism, and the carving bears many of the hallmarks (albeit at a much larger scale) of the social realism and cult of founders so prevalent in eastern Europe, Russia, China, or other places where authoritarians ground their heels. Granted, the US didn’t go that far (though Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and a few others of that era certainly made a go of it), but it’s hard for me to see the monument outside of that context (Borglum’s Klan associations are part of that era too).

    What makes it more strange is that the current visitor center there, a product of the Bush and Obama years, has its own rather different authoritarian stamp on it. For one thing, the museum and center cannot really face that there should be anything admirable in the presidents depicted, much less ask why Americans might feel proud enough of their past to carve it into a mountain – a great deal of time is instead spent whitewashing (heh) Borglum, and the rest is spent on Sioux history, local geology, etc. But the center itself is even more befitting of post-War socialist Brutalism than the carvings are of pre-war American jingoism – the center is imposing, and dehumanizing, sterile and tomb-like. It is all massive geometric granite, not at all organic or synthetic with the land, and it makes the visitor feel small and ill at ease. I’ve been in East-German government office buildings that felt more welcoming. I know, form is supposed to follow function and the place was designed to handle millions of people per year, but evidently the architect was trying to convey his resentment of that reality.

    I think we should be thankful that Borglum never actually finished the job – the statues were supposed to be larger, and there was supposed to be a Hall of Records – a sort of quasi-religious mausoleum – on the far side of the mountain. The geology of the place, as well as funding, ensured neither was complete (though the Hall was blasted out, it is closed to all but rangers).

    For my money and time, go another half hour south, onto Sioux lands, and visit Crazy Horse. For one, it’s even larger (by orders of magnitude). And for the Sioux (who are paying for it out of their own pockets), they’re quite willing to get uncomfortable with it the complexities of history – the Sioux are warriors, and as such they both recognize the that they were militarily defeated, and that they need to retake their own fates and fortunes for themselves. Crazy Horse is not just a sterile monument, it is the centerpiece of a larger forward-looking project that is creating a large campus to be the heart of a long-term renewal – it embraces the past, but Crazy Horse is looking to the future of his people.

    1. Wonderful comment, thanks, Skip! I am with you on Teddy Roosevelt, although Rudyard Kipling (whom you mentioned in your comment on the ‘bicycle’ post) was apparently an enthusiast. His poem, “Great Heart,” was one of Dad’s favorites, and was written upon Roosevelt’s death. It’s rather like “If,” but with nowhere near as many conditionals: https://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/great_heart.html. (“Concerning Brave Captains” was the title of Dad’s first book. That’s probably not an accident.)

      I can view Mount Rushmore more-or-less absent its baggage, and I’m always fascinated by that sort of massive sculpturing which–as a result of the blowing up of thousands of tons of stone–somehow results in recognizable representations of human faces. I’m sure the artists did a lot of fine-tuning, but the fact that they didn’t blow the whole thing to uncrecognizable smithereens is commendable. Although Borglum was, in many respects, a not-very-admirable character, that’s for sure.

      I’ve not visited the museum/visitor center, and based on your review, I’ll give it a miss!** But I will definitely take in Crazy Horse if I’m in that part of the country in the future.

      **WRT Obama, at least, the tastelessness shouldn’t be a surprise. The Obama Library is spectacularly ugly, and–indeed–I’ve been known to describe it as “a vast and legless trunk of stone.” Perhaps it’s lovely inside, but, Lord, the outside is off-putting: https://www.architecture.org/news/evolving-chicago/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-obama-presidential-center/

  2. Hmm. I tried to leave a long comment, but it appears to have been eaten. Short version: go see Crazy Horse. It’s better than Rushmore for many many reasons.

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