A Sublime Celebration of Liberty

ROBERT S. KYFF

October 23, 1991|By ROBERT S. KYFF

WEST HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT. — West Hartford, Connecticut -- It's one of the most familiar and majestic icons of American culture. Carved into a granite cliff in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the great stone heads of the Mount Rushmore memorial loom over our national shoulder like prodigious patriarchs.

Lofty, serene and immutable, the 60-feet tall faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt constitute one of the largest pieces of statuary in the world. Each bust alone is bigger than the entire Great Sphinx of Egypt. More than 2 million people visit the monument each year, paying homage to what its sculptor Gutzon Borglum called ''The Shrine of Democracy.''

But during the 50 years since its completion in October of 1941, that shrine seems to have lost some of its luster.

Feminists and minorities assail the memorial, which includes two slave holders, as yet another symbol of the dominance of dead white males over our nation's politics and culture. They wonder why the suffragette Susan B. Anthony and the Indian heroes Sa-kaka-wea and Red Cloud, whose visages were once considered for the monument, were not included. Native American critics, who say Mount Rushmore desecrates sacred land illegally seized from the Sioux, are helping to carve their own monument to Chief Crazy Horse on a nearby mountain. And environmentalists condemn Borglum's sculpture as an unconscionable defilement of nature.

Somehow forgotten in these justifiable criticisms is the central meaning of the monument itself. For Mount Rushmore is at once a superb work of art, a moving tribute to the leadership and

character of four extraordinary individuals, and, most important, a sublime celebration of the ideals of liberty, equality and democracy, the very values which its critics seek to promote.

Mount Rushmore is, without question, an extraordinary triumph of engineering, artistry and sheer force of will. For 14 years, its creator, Borglum, an arrogant, stubborn man with an ego as large as the mountain he was carving, battled sporadic funding, bad weather, near-fatal accidents and public ridicule to complete the project. Following his precise instructions, artisans suspended in swing chairs on the sheer cliff blasted away nearly one billion tons of granite with dynamite and 85-pound jackhammers. Miraculously, despite the collapse of a tramway, the premature detonation of explosives by lightning, and a runaway cable car, no one was killed during Mount Rushmore's creation.

Given the huge scale of the project, its final result might have been lifeless figures, stone cold in affect and impression. But through precise attention to details, Borglum, who had studied with the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, created four faces which are not only instantly recognizable as the men they depict but remarkably life-like in their expression and bearing.

He imparted a human sparkle to the statues' eyes by carving thin shafts of granite in their pupils to catch the sunlight; he created the illusion of Roosevelt's spectacles by leaving a thin band of stone on the Rough Rider's brow; he patched a blemish in the rock of Jefferson's countenance by inserting a block of granite into his upper lip. While the visages wear similar expressions, each president's face conveys his distinct personality: the noble Washington, the visionary Jefferson, the solemn Lincoln, the vigorous Roosevelt.

And it is, after all, these four presidents who embody the essence of Mount Rushmore's meaning. Borglum claimed he chose these four leaders because together they symbolized the sweeping geographic growth of the nation: Washington, father and leader of the 13 original states; Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase; Lincoln, preserver of the Union; and Roosevelt, builder of the Panama Canal linking two oceans.

But the true unifying principle of the four figures is not geographic expansion but human liberty. Washington freed his country from the tyranny of British economic and political oppres- sion. Jefferson eloquently articulated the then-radical notion of human equality. Lincoln not only emancipated the slaves but ensured the survival of the United States as a democracy of continental proportions. And Roosevelt led energetic campaigns to protect the American people from exploitation by business trusts and to preserve the nation's natural resources. While each man was undoubtedly tainted by the racism, imperialism and sexism of his time, each also transcended his time in his passionate devotion to liberty.

From their lofty cliff on the south side of Mount Rushmore these four men continue to look out over the free nation they helped to shape, a nation which teems with a diversity of races, religions, lifestyles, values, ideas, viewpoints and pursuits. Dead white males they may be, but the freedoms they secured for future generations still survive in the very voices that decry their monument.

That vital debate -- the noisy, dissenting, lively and wonderful cacophony of democracy -- is perhaps their most suitable and abiding memorial.

Robert S. Kyff teaches U.S. history at Kingswood-Oxford School.

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