Carving The American Colossus


While the Mount Rushmore enterprise got off to a halting start, Gutzon Borglum managed, as always, to keep unflaggingly busy. A few months before the dedication in the Black Hills he had brought his connection with the Stone Mountain Monumental Association to a literally crashing conclusion by pushing his plaster models over the side of the cliff after discovering that he had just been dismissed for insubordination and mismanagement; he then hastily departed for points north while Georgia lawmen tried to catch him before he crossed the border. The disastrous Stone Mountain episode had not been without its instructive aspects, however. Borglum had learned some clever techniques of mountain carving that would be essential on Mount Rushmore; and the South Dakotans who would be involved with the production of the monument had learned that they were dealing with a man who had all the traditional characteristics of the temperamental artist, and then some. They even received a helpful brochure from the Stone Mountain association describing Borglum as greedy, truant, unreliable, offensively egotistical, and possessed by delusions of grandeur.


Such charges were no news to Borglum. In 1925, in his fifty-ninth year, the bald but fiercely mustachioed artist was one of America’s most widely known sculptors, as much for his bumptious personality as for his great productivity. His early years in art had followed a familiar pattern: encouragement by older American artists, a few years of study in Paris (during which he became a disciple of Auguste Rodin), shows and commissions back in the States and in London. At first successful as a painter, he veered steadily toward sculpture after 1904, when he won a gold medal at the St. Louis Exposition for his equestrian Mares of Diomedes .


Certain subjects in American history particularly intrigued Borglum, among them Abraham Lincoln. His treatment was habitually realistic. “I think it is the most extraordinarily good portrait of my father I have ever seen,” said Robert Lincoln after the sculptor chiseled a head of the Emancipator out of a three-foot block of marble in 1908. (It now stands in the Capitol Rotunda.) Borglum did a big mounted statue of General Philip Sheridan for Washington, D.C., and in 1911 another larger-than-life Lincoln—this time full length—for the courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, which won a bully tribute from Teddy Roosevelt: “This doesn’t look like a monument at all. It looks real!” Having established himself as something of an expert on Lincoln, the sculptor then sounded off with typical vociferation against the announced plans for the Lincoln Memorial, which he regarded, he wrote his friend Felix Frankfurter, “with pain akin to madness. … A modernized twen-tieth-century interpretation of a Greek temple to stand there forever on the flats… to remind us of that simple great first gift of the West. … Is it possible that Lincoln is to be dehumanized and rolled into the conventional architectural formula so soon!”

A devotee of T.R.’s “strenuous life,” Borglum extended himself in manly sports as well as civic affairs. “I do everything,” he explained to a newspaperman who had inquired about his nonartistic activities, “boxing, fencing, wrestling, horseback riding. … A man should do everything, turn handsprings, somersaults. The trouble with American life is that it is not vigorous enough.” In politics, despite his rather Caesarian temperament, he was a progressive: pro-labor, pro-Teddy Roosevelt, pro-democracy. The entry of the United States into World War I spun him into a flurry of patriotic zeal. Early an aviation fan, he was convinced that American production of warplanes was seriously deficient, and persuaded Woodrow Wilson to let him come to Washington to investigate the situation. Angry and confused when Wilson appeared to brush aside the accusatory and troublesome report he made after a month of hard work, Borglum sent an open letter to newspapers denouncing the President’s negligence. Wilson, meanwhile, who had expected a gadfly and raised a hornet, declared: “I never at any time constituted you an official investigator.” Borglum, thoroughly disenchanted but still out to win the war, went back to his big studio and estate in Stamford, Connecticut, where he set up a camp for the entertainment and training of Czechoslovakian volunteers.

When in the summer of 1927 Borglum was ready to begin the work on Mount Rushmore, he was enough of a national figure to arouse much curiosity over what he would attempt there and whether he would accomplish it. The question of whose faces would be “released” from the mountain had already been settled, mostly as a result of Borglum’s adamant insistence: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were easy choices, but Theodore Roosevelt aroused argument. He had been a personal friend of Borglum’s, which of course raised some suspicion of favoritism; but the sculptor was ready with his rationale. T.R., he said, was an “all American President” who had made America a world power with the Panama Canal and who with his three great predecessors formed a quartet magnificently representative of the building of the nation.