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Carving The American Colossus

July 2024
21min read

The granite was tough—but so was Gutzon Borglum

In late August, 1970, a band of Sioux Indians entered the sacred precincts of a National Memorial in South Dakota and bivouacked on a mountaintop there for several weeks. The precincts were sacred to the Sioux because they are in the heart of the Black Hills, long regarded by their tribe as the dwelling place of Indian gods and spirits. And, as signaled by the apprehensive behavior of park rangers who monitored the Indians closely during their stay, the precincts are also precious to the United States Department of the Interior. For there, looming high above the valley floor, gazing off across hundreds of miles of the South Dakota Badlands, are the gigantic stone faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt hewn from the primeval granite by sculptor Gutzon Borglum in fourteen years of labor on precipitous Mount Rushmore.

The Indians wanted Mount Rushmore “back,” as they put it. What they meant, they explained, was that the entire Black Hills area was guaranteed as Indian territory by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868—a treaty spectacularly ignored after an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer found gold in 1874. They thought it was high time for the government to make some modest compensation for that enormous treaty violation. Beyond that, they were not happy with a monument that celebrates the founding of the white man’s nation (Washington), the acquisition of vast tracts of Indian hunting and living space without regard to Indian wishes (Jefferson), and the consolidation and expansion of the intruders’ domain into the most powerful sovereignty in the world (Lincoln and Roosevelt). “They could just as well have carved this mountain into a huge cavalry boot standing on a dead Indian,” one of the Indians said later.

The Sioux invaders found a comfortable campsite up behind Teddy Roosevelt’s skull, painted “RED POWER” on a nearby expanse of rock, and settled in with food and water transported to them regularly by local compatriots. They did not, as the rangers had feared they might, pour red paint over the great presidential noses or otherwise mutilate the monument; but they did succeed in attracting considerable regional and national attention to the situation of the American Indian today, and in engendering among many people second thoughts about the meaning of Mount Rushmore in the national iconology.

The whole episode would have been deeply disturbing to Gutzon Borglum, who counted himself a close friend of the Sioux, and who despite his foreign-sounding name was almost egregiously American, born in Idaho in 1867 and raised in Nebraska and California. Mount Rushmore was by far his most heroic undertaking—heroic in its proportions, its difficulties, and its artistic symbolism—and he always felt intensely about its import as American mythology. “There on the mountain top,” he wrote in 1940, “as near to Heaven as we could make it, we have carved portraits of our leaders, that posterity and civilization may see hundreds of thousands of years hence what manner of men our leaders were, with a prayer and a belief that there among the clouds they may stand forever, where wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”

Although Borglum had long wanted to sculpt a mountain into a great monument, and in fact had already developed considerable skill as a mountain carver in Georgia, the idea of such a project in the Black Hills was not originally his. It came from Doane Robinson, for many years the state historian of South Dakota and a well-known writer on Western history. In 1923 Robinson had been contemplating the Black Hills Needles, great spires of solid granite that are the residual cores of mountain peaks long since eroded away, and it struck him that some of them might be carved into tremendous historical statues. “In my imagination,” he said, “I can see all the old heroes of the west peering out … Lewis and Clark, Frémont, Jed Smith, Bridger, Sa-kakawea, Red Cloud, and in an equestrian statue, Cody and the overland mail.” Inspired by this heady vision, Robinson sought public support for his idea. The much respected South Dakota senator Peter Norbeck was sympathetic, as were a few regional newspaper editors; but others sputtered about tampering with “nature’s handiwork.” “Man makes statues but God made the Needles,” announced the Hot Springs Star; “Let them alone.”

The undaunted Robinson had heard about Gutzon Borglum’s work on Stone Mountain, Georgia, a few miles from Atlanta. There, after a series of troublesome fits and starts, the sculptor had begun a bas-relief high up on the side of the mountain, depicting Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders riding into history in glorious defeat; his twenty-foot head of Lee had been unveiled on January 19, 1924. Here was a man who clearly knew how to carve granite on a titanic scale, and Robinson wrote Borglum suggesting “a massive sculpture” in the Black Hills. He was unaware that the artist was having ferocious troubles with the Stone Mountain Monumental [sic] Association over the administration of the project, and was delighted when, late in September, 1924, Borglum arrived to look over the terrain. Accompanied by his twelve-year-old son, Lincoln Borglum, as well as by historian Robinson and a few local enthusiasts, the sculptor toured beautiful Custer State Park and the next day climbed Harney Peak, the highest (7,242 feet) in the Black Hills. He was more than impressed by what he saw from that eminence. Nearby and in the distance rose an array of granite needles and outcroppings that seemed to him to beg for sculpting. “There’s the place to carve a great national memorial,” Doane Robinson reported him as saying. “American history shall march along that skyline!”

This somewhat majestic rhetoric was pure Borglum, for he was a man not given to understatement. It also hinted that the sculptor would not be content to carve figures of Western or regional heroes; he wanted a truly national monument, and proposed Washington and Lincoln as obviously appropriate candidates. Senator Norbeck was not happy with what he called Borglum’s “WashingtonLincoln Siamese twins idea,” and on thinking it over, the artist himself concluded that “making totem poles of these wonderful spires [the Needles]” was indeed the wrong approach. Instead, “we want to go back into the Hills, find some now unknown massive stone, and carve these figures upon them.”

In August, 1925, Borglum found his “unknown massive stone.” He had been guided by a state forester into a remote area of the Harney National Forest where there were more extensive outcroppings than the Needles offered. About three miles northeast of Harney Peak, Borglum came to a halt, staring with a wild surmise at an enormous expanse of weathered gray stone, seamed with wrinkles and fissures across its nearly perpendicular side, but apparently one solid mass of granite underneath. Crowding the sky at six thousand feet, it looked like the body of a huge prehistoric elephant that had become petrified in some cataclysmic episode millions of years ago. Borglum felt immediately that this was his mountain, and quickly sketched it—with a head of Washington roughed in against the granite side near the top.

The artist learned that this extraordinary mountain was called Rushmore—casually named in 1885 after Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer who was struck by its appearance when he encountered it on a trip to check property titles for miners in the area. Although Borglum conscientiously examined other stone masses in the vicinity, the more he studied Mount Rushmore the more he grew convinced that this was the right place for the singular monument he had in mind. The granite, although rugged—geologists guessed it would erode at a rate not faster than an inch in 100,000 years—seemed suitably grained for accurate cutting; the posture of the mountain was perfect in terms of natural lighting, for its most carvable surface faced southeast and would be bathed in sunlight nearly all day.

Legislation to permit mountain sculpture in the Black Hills had already been passed by Congress and by the South Dakota state legislature. Borglum exhibited a distinctly Barnumesque flair in working up plans for dedication of the chosen site, and after lively publicity a couple of thousand citizens hiked out to the base of Mount Rushmore on October 1, 1925. There they watched performers in costume—Indian, French, Spanish, English, and American, to indicate successive “ownership"—go through a fancy flag-raising ceremony atop the mountain, and heard Borglum declare sonorously that if they would come back in a year they would see the finished head of George Washington that was (as he liked to put it) waiting in the granite to be released.

In fact, two years went by before carving was even begun on Mount Rushmore. The chief problem was one from which the project was never to be free: lack of money. Borglum, who lived lavishly but was almost always in debt, tended to assume that the patriotic appeal of the proposed monument, enhanced by skillful promotion, would bring forth large sums from both public and private sources. Events revealed instead a skeptical reluctance in Congress to appropriate funds for Rushmore, and an almost incredible parsimony on the part of the state of South Dakota, which never appropriated a dime for what was eventually to become its most popular tourist attraction. Private contributions ran to dribbles rather than floods. It was, to be sure, an expensive business by the frugal standards of the time: in the end—1941—the total outlay for Mount Rushmore would be calculated at $989,992, of which federal appropriations accounted for $836,000.

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.

About one thing there was never any doubt: the sculpture was going to be tremendous. Although Borglum later was annoyed by tourists whose only reaction to the monument was open-mouthed wonder at its size, he fully intended from the beginning that its proportions should be stunning. They should be determined, he said, “by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated"; and he told Senator Norbeck that his mission was “to get the American people to look at art in a big way and to get away from this petty stuff.” The great stone faces would measure sixty feet from hairline to chin; the noses would average twenty feet long; the mouths eighteen feet wide; the eye sockets eleven feet across. On that scale, if the figures of Washington and Lincoln were to be completed full length they would be about 465 feet tall, more than three times the height of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The cutting of the granite got off to a prestigious start as a result of Calvin Coolidge having been persuaded, by Norbeck and others, that he ought to spend the summer of 192 7 in the Black Hills where mountain trout twenty inches long were easy to catch. (They were easy to catch because a great many of them, carefully bred, were dumped at the right times into the streams where the unsuspecting President fished.) It was not many miles from the summer White House at Custer State Park’s Game Lodge to Mount Rushmore, and early in August, having stuffed his trouser legs into cowboy boots and placed a big sombrero unjauntily on his head, Coolidge was conveyed by automobile and gentle horse to the site of the monument.

Borglum was ready. Never a man to forgo pomp for mere practicality, he managed to combine the two by having twenty-one tree stumps blown up in well-timed succession as Coolidge progressed along the road that was being built to the mountain. The President delivered a brief but, for him, eloquent speech, calling Mount Rushmore a national shrine whose “cornerstone … was laid by the hand of the Almighty"; then Borglum went up the mountain and with great panache swung down over its face in a specially designed sling seat attached to a cable and drilled a few initial holes for points on Washington’s face. The crowd of nearly two thousand applauded mightily.

One curious result of Coolidge’s visit to Mount Rushmore was that he undertook to compose a suitable historical inscription, to be carved into a hugh entablature on the mountain in letters so large and deep that they could be read for three miles. (The arrangement with Coolidge was made part of Public Law 805, passed in 1929, setting up the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission to supervise construction of the monument.) Borglum was not willing to settle for an inspirational quotation of some sort: he wanted about five hundred words that would epitomize if not summarize all of American history. The best way to do this, he thought, was to pick out eight or ten pivotal events and write a pithy explanatory statement about each one.

Coolidge, his famous laconicism at stake, labored long and hard on this grave assignment. In the spring of 1932 it was announced that the former President had completed statements for the first two events, namely the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. As given out to eager newpapers by a public relations firm Borglum had hired, the proposed inscriptions read: “In the year of our Lord 1776 the people declared the eternal right to seek happiness, self-government and the divine duty to defend that right at any sacrifice.” “In 1787 assembled in convention they made a charter of perpetual union for free people of sovereign states establishing a government of limited powers under an independent President, Congress, and Court charged to provide security for all citizens in their enjoyment of liberty, equality, and justice.”

Press commentary across the nation soon indicated a widespread feeling that this left something to be desired in eloquence, grandeur, and even grammar—especially for words that were to be carved in granite and might well endure for 500,000 years. Debate along this line, however, quickly gave way to dismay and some snickers when Borglum admitted, under prodding, that he had edited Coolidge’s prose considerably without consulting the distinguished author. Coolidge’s original text had read: “The Declaration of Independence—The eternal right to seek happiness through self-government and the divine duty to defend that right at any sacrifice.” “The constitution—charter of perpetual union of free people of sovereign states establishing a government of limited powers—under an independent President, Congress, and Court, charged to provide security for all citizens in their enjoyment of liberty, equality and justice under the law. ”

While it was doubtful that Borglum had improved these pronouncements, there was no doubt that Calvin Coolidge was extremely irked at his wielding of the blue pencil. “I do not wish to approve the changes …,” he informed the sculptor. “In each instance it breaks up the thought I was trying to convey.” A mutual acquaintance, Paul Bellamy of Rapid City, reported later that when he was paying his respects to the retired President in Northampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge asked how far it was to the Black Hills and was told it was about two thousand miles. “You know,” said Coolidge, “that is just about as close to Mr. Borglum as I want to be.” The brouhaha over Borglum’s editing of Coolidge put the whole question of the inscribed entablature up in the air, and in the end it was abandoned. Most lovers of Mount Rushmore felt that this was just as well.

The carving of Mount Rushmore took fourteen years, although it has been figured that without the numerous interruptions for lack of funds, it could have been done in six and a half. The process was complex, and involved engineering skills as much as those of art. Borglum had been overly optimistic in his estimate of the mountain’s solidity: some of the fissures on its side turned out to be deep, and the quality of the rock uneven. Thousands of tons of granite had to be dynamited away before a workable surface was reached. Washington’s finished chin, for example, is thirty feet back of the original surface; Jefferson’s is about sixty feet; Teddy Roosevelt, waiting (in Borglum’s metaphor) to be released from the granite, was found lurking so far back—120 feet—that a great nervousness developed as to whether he was really there at all; for a canyon runs close behind the heads, and the available rock was distinctly finite.

Jefferson’s head was begun on the opposite side of Washington’s from where it is now, but one of Borglum’s assistants made a bad mistake in cutting, and there was insufficient depth for correction. The unfinished face was blasted away in 1934 and a new start made at Washington’s left shoulder—which, however, had to be drastically reçut to make room for Jefferson’s chin. Then a long crack was found where the new Jeffersonian nose had been planned, and Borglum had to “reset” the head at a different angle and several feet farther back. “I have no intention,” he said, “of leaving a head on that mountain that in the course of five hundred or five thousand years will be without a nose.”

It is remarkable that, confronting such problems, Borglum was able to impart to the monument the look of carefully conceived artistic work. He did it by always being ready to rethink the overall composition, again and again departing from his studio model in order to meet the tough exigencies of the granite. Moreover, although the features of the four Presidents, magnified on a scale of a foot to an inch, could be transferred from model to mountain with amazing accuracy by means of an elaborate system of measurement and triangulation, the artist made many subtle changes, as each face neared completion, because of the actual look of the thing. Just as an ordinary sculptor steps back a few yards from a statue to consider its effect, Borglum would often drive several miles to another mountain, climb it, and study his work across the distance with binoculars. Then he would go back, have himself lowered from Rushmore’s top in his sling seat, and mark the spots where he wanted a little more rock removed to improve a presidential facial expression.

One of the sculptor’s most notable refinements was in the treatment of the eyes. For the two faces first completed, Washington’s and Jefferson’s, the pupils were represented by granite shafts, about twenty inches long, left attached to the inside of the eyes at the top, so that they stick down like stalactites. These reflect daylight in a way that, in contrast to the dark shadows within the eyes, gives a life-like look; but Borglum discovered later that having the granite pupils project straight out from the middle of the eyes was even better. Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt were therefore done that way, to truly startling effect. T.R’s famous pince-nez offered another chance for ingenuity, and the artist managed to suggest them so well merely by carving a curved ridge under a part of each eye that many viewers swear they can see the lenses.

Very little of the Mount Rushmore monument was carved with mallet and chisel, new techniques having been devised to suit the gigantic scope of the undertaking. Once a key point had been “located” in the granite by measurement and triangulation—say the end of a nose—Borglum’s crew of trained workmen would dynamite away the rock to within a few inches of the final surface. Rough shaping of noses, cheeks, mouths, and other features was done both by dynamiting, and by wedging off layers of granite after honeycombing the appropriate area with holes made by heavy pneumatic drills. Finer shaping was then achieved by “bumping” the granite down to a smooth surface, using a special pneumatic tool equipped with a four-point steel bit.

Borglum, while he did relatively little of the physical work himself, was often on the working face of the mountain, hovering over every detail. An intimidating boss when he was on the job—“If the Old Man said it was going to rain and the sun was shining, I said, ‘It sure looks like rain,’ ” one of his workmen reported—the artist was also found to be irascible and hard to work with by many others interested in seeing Mount Rushmore completed. Senator Norbeck, who was fond of Borglum despite painful altercations, observed that “his unwillingness to cooperate with anyone else is simply astonishing.”

This was especially awkward for the creator of a project that sometimes teetered toward bankruptcy and in the long run had to be bailed out by congressional appropriations. A concomitant of this was that in June, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt placed Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service—a move that seemed possibly ominous, since the Service’s determination to keep things natural was legendary, and Mount Rushmore was anything but natural. Nothing much happened for three years, but in 1936 a “resident engineer” was assigned to the project by the government agency. The engineer, an affable and capable man named Julian C. Spotts, quickly set about installing a small cable car to obviate the daily climb up Mount Rushmore’s steep slope, and made other improvements such as increasing the efficiency of the compressedair system that operated the drills. Borglum, who could not stomach anything that remotely resembled supervision, responded by complaining bitterly about what he saw as Spoil’s bureaucratic administrative arrangements, and soon was conducting his negotiations with the engineer in writing although their offices on the site were almost adjacent.

This was fairly typical. The sculptor was in the habit, when particularly irritated at someone, of sending the begetter of his irritation a vitriolic letter, with carbon copies to congressmen, editors, or others who he thought should know of the fardels under which he labored. This did not win him many friends; yet he had many, for when a more genial humor seized him, Borglum could be notably charming and generous. During the Depression, for instance, he was greatly moved by the destitute state of the Indians on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, and expended much time and effort gathering large contributions of food and blankets for them. The Sioux made him an honorary chief—Chief Stone Eagle—in gratitude.

Despite Borglum’s thorny behavior toward the Park Service’s operative, F.D.R. decided to take a detour to Mount Rushmore while on a trip to survey Dust Bowl agricultural distress in August, 1936. The timing was good: Thomas Jefferson’s face had finally emerged from the mountain enough to sustain a dedication ceremony. Borglum grew baleful, however, when the presidential party was delayed two hours in arriving at the monument; he growled that afternoon shadows would now fall across Jefferson’s face and spoil everything. Nevertheless, when F.D.R. got there the sculptor did one of his quickchange performances, greeting the President with magisterial courtesy. Roosevelt watched with absorption as a few exemplary dynamite blasts blew stone off the monument with a great roar; then little parachutes, released from an airplane and weighted with chips of granite from the mountain, floated down among three thousand spectators while a seventy-foot flag was drawn aside to reveal Jefferson’s visage. Genuinely impressed, F.D.R. gave an impromptu and enthusiastic speech, and the event ended with everyone glowing and optimistic.

Mount Rushmore was now better than half finished, for work had begun on Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Borglum had proved that he could do the job if only the money problems could continue to be solved and the trouble caused by his contentiousness could be kept down to some reasonable level. A full account of the vicissitudes of the project in South Dakota and in Washington, where advocates steadily sought more government money for the monument, and of Borglum’s bickering with the National Park Service and the Mount Rush- more national commission would be very long and complicated (though such an account has been given in Gilbert C. File’s excellent book Mount Rushmore [1952], which remains by far the most thorough historical study of the whole subject).

Here it is enough to tick off highlights: the dedication of the Lincoln head in September, 1937; Borglum’s surprising luck in getting passage of new federal legislation in June, 1938, removing Mount Rushmore from the National Park Service’s control and authorizing §300,000 more toward finishing the work; F.D.R.'s decision, a year later, to reinstate control by the Service (since it was now clear that eventually the monument grounds would require careful planning and administration in order to be adequate for the expected crowds of tourists); the dedication of Theodore Roosevelt’s head in July, 1939. A visionary scheme of the sculptor to cut an enormous “Hall of Records” in the granite canyon up behind the great heads—to contain permanent records of American history, carved inscriptions, busts of other national heroes, etc., etc.—met with stubborn resistance from the Park Service and came to almost nothing, although Borglum, just as stubborn, did spend some S16,000 blasting a big square hole—the entrance to the Hall—twenty-five yards back into the stone before he was ordered to cease and desist. (It is still there, bleak and empty.)

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.


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