Carving The American Colossus


By the late winter of 1941 work on the great stone faces was substantially finished. Borglum, now nearly seventy-four years old, underwent a prostate operation in Chicago in February. He came through it well, but developed a blood clot and died suddenly on March 6. Lincoln Borglum, who had been his father’s chief assistant since 1931, giving up college to do so, carried on the work; and before America turned all its attention to World War n on December 7, the last carving had been done on Mount Rushmore. Had Gutzon Borglum lived, and had more money been available, the figures would have been somewhat more fully realized; but his son judged that they were satisfactorily done.

In the thirty-six years since the monument received its final touches, Mount Rushmore has become one of the most alluring tourist attractions in the country. Though remote from urban centers, it is serviced by excellent highways and surrounded by gorgeous scenery; it also enjoys a splendid climate for most of the spring, summer, and fall. The well-appointed grounds—a modern visitors’ center, a viewing terrace, Borglum’s studio, a commodious amphitheater for outdoor programs in full view of the monument, a concessions building with a cafeteria and a large shop where souvenirs ranging from the absurd to the acceptable are on sale—are administered by the National Park Service with almost antiseptic efficiency, and the big parking lot is seldom if ever empty. Courteous rangers (including, in the summer months, a few lissome college girls in Smokey-the-Bear hats) answer questions, take part in special programs, and watch the slopes of the mountain to stop violators of the no-climbing rule ("Violators subject to fine of $500 and 6 months in jail"). Over two million people came to Mount Rushmore in 1976, to stare admiringly at the great faces, take countless pictures, wander about, and write in the visitors’ register comments like “Inspiring!” “Magnificent!” “Far out!” or “Makes me proud to be an American.” (These are salted very occasionally by such remarks as “Waste!")

Borglum was anxious that the monument should not be regarded as “just a damn big thing": that full value should also be accorded its artistic worth and its historical significance. The difficulty of eliciting a balanced reaction was brought home to him one day when he stopped along a road a few miles from Rushmore to chat with a man who was offering telescopic views of the nearly completed sculpture to passing motorists. “What do people say when they look at the mountain?” the artist inquired. The entrepreneur was reluctant, but finally came across: “Most folks want to know how much concrete it took.” That gave Borglum a good laugh. “What do you tell them?” he asked. “I tell them I don’t rightly know,” said the man. “How much didit take?”


The Park Service is assiduous, in its brochures and in the recorded “terrace talk” heard continuously over its PA system, to stress the lofty intent and symbolism of the monument over its sheer size (“… The Memorial serves to remind all Americans of this country’s noble achievements of the past and the hope a democratic society offers for the future. …”). The fact remains that Mount Rushmore’s fantastic proportions and its spectacular mountain setting have been its most impressive aspects: there is simply no other work of sculpture in the world to compare with this American colossus. As for its artistic worth, if it has not evoked much praise from critics it surely must be ranked among Borglum’s best works, all of which are in a naturalistic tradition not admired by the aesthetic arbiters of recent times.

When it comes to judging Mount Rushmore’s value as a “shrine of democracy” (the phrase belonged to F.D.R.)—as an emblematic projection of American ideals—there has also been room for argument. The Indian occupation of the memorial in 1970 was a straw in the wind blowing toward far more serious demands for Indian reparations and self-determination, such as the violent confrontation at Wounded Knee in 1973. The occupation served not so much as a criticism of the monument itself as of the history it purports to celebrate. Yet the four famous men whose faces scan the country from Mount Rushmore were all profoundly concerned with justice, which is the heart of the matter. If the society they represent can remember and hold fast to that, then it, as well as their heroic images, may endure as long as even Gutzon Borglum could have dreamed.