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The faces of Mount Rushmore re-interpreted

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Unlike the presidential statuary and monuments that festoon Washington and later became tourist attractions, Mount Rushmore's quartet of colossal faces was conceived as a tourist attraction (to bolster the faltering local economy) and only afterward took on deeper monumental meaning. For people who perceive it in grand terms, Rushmore is a patriotic psalm in stone, one that catches the national spirit in the true national setting, as opposed to a memorial set in a corrupt, bureaucratized capital.

In South Dakota, the visage of American greatness looms over the vast plain and stares serenely into ... what? A still unfolding destiny manifest only to the carved heroes' ever-open eyes? Or are these same icons unwilling witnesses to the mess that later generations have made of their shared presidential achievement?

But Rushmore's gigantism certainly doesn't have grand meaning for everybody, as a pair of new works about the big faces and their obsessed sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, reminds us. The mountain's primary visual association -- aside from souvenir postcards -- remains its role as the climactic setting for Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller North by Northwest, and there will always be visitors who come to look at Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt but can't help seeing Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau instead.

John Taliaferro, in his fine new history of the sculpture, Great White Fathers (PublicAffairs), notes that a recent, expensive upgrade of Rushmore's visitors' center faced stiff opposition because, among other reasons, it destroyed the old visitors' center where Hitchcock filmed some scenes and thus broke Rushmore's nostalgic connection to classic Hollywood.

There's always been another camp of people who regard Rushmore as little more than Big Kitsch, and not very American kitsch at that. To them, taking a perfectly good Dakota mountain and carving really huge faces on it seems a rather Pharaonic sort of enterprise that is not merely in bad taste but inconsistent with the republican ideals the result is supposed to celebrate. It isn't that Washington, Jefferson, and the rest don't deserve grand memorialization; they certainly do. But Rushmore's serene faces on the plains invite, for some, great-man cultism, if not an overtly quasi-religious reaction.

On the other hand, building a giant obelisk to memorialize George Washington in the capital was an even more obviously Pharaonic gesture than is Rushmore, and it may be that the urge to classical colossalism trumps all politics.

There are new, emerging ways to perceive Rushmore, too, thus suggesting that the monument has a vital place in the national imagination. One of these new ways is as an unfinished work. That is, some people see the mountain as a legitimate tableau of American greatness to which they hope to add their own favorite president. Certain of Ronald Reagan's enthusiasts, for example, have lobbied to have their man's face added, though there is probably no stable place on Rushmore to carve him or anyone else. The reason that Teddy Roosevelt seems so tightly squeezed into the current lineup is Borglum's discovery that Rushmore wouldn't support his original, more widely spaced conception. Apparently, you can't put anyone to Washington's right without threatening to bring down much of the existing facade.

It may come as a surprise to many that, for a few people, Mount Rushmore is actually a place of evil. But a New York-based grad student named Jesse Larner has written nearly 400 pages attempting to expose the mountain's negative side. In Mount Rushmore: An Icon Reconsidered (Thunder's Mouth/Nation Books) Larner argues that the sculpture is, in a phrase he quotes, "a monument to whiteness."

Here, blares the dust jacket, is a revered place of pilgrimage in the middle of Lakota Sioux country, portraying four men who, whatever their other achievements, "were deeply involved in the national project of wiping out the American Indian." Here's a grand sculpture created by a man, Borglum, who was "a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan and a virulent racist." Indeed, here is a "mountain that came into the possession of the United States through the abrogation of an 1868 treaty with the Lakota."

Such a background, says Larner, cannot help but affect Rushmore's message. Indeed, writes Larner, some disaffected young Dakotans would like to "blow it up," though Larner doesn't go so far.

Is it true that Rushmore's racially charged back story must affect its message? It might be true if Rushmore had only a single message to express. But obviously Mount Rushmore plays a more complex role than that. Like everything that emerges at the hand of man, its meaning is fluid. Borglum's backers wanted one thing (tourism), Borglum gave them another (monumentality); Borglum's audience is taking away a variety of meanings.

The point of an effort like Larner's, if he is successful, is not so much that he is revealing Rushmore's true meaning; it is that he is expanding the range of Rushmore's numerous and often conflicting meanings. The very same issue of a racially charged origin is part of the story of many American institutions (including the national parks, which were established in part to give the white race somewhere to rough it, and thus to avoid degenerating). The question is whether these dark sides of American history are alive in any meaningful way. Larner may condemn the sculpture and its secret history, but the issue now is whether anyone celebrates Rushmore as "a monument to whiteness."

If artifacts like Mount Rushmore have a secret, it is their ability to inspire the most unexpected reactions. An especially appealing perception of the place came from Cher, who believed that the faces were natural, uncreated formations. At least, that understanding of the place has been attributed to the actress-singer. It may seem unlikely that Cher really thought such a thing (or does it?), but it's too good a story to check.

Charles Paul Freund is a Reason senior editor. This article first appeared in the Feb. 2003 edition of Reason.

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