Rushmore

It can be hard to change your mind about things set in stone.  Especially icons.

My father worked second shift when I was very young, and it was not unusual for me to be awake to greet him when he returned home.  It might explain why my earliest memories include the experience of watching our local television station sign off for the night with a patriotic montage set to The Star Spangled Banner.  Somewhere among the rippling flags and sweeping aerial vistas was a glimpse of Mount Rushmore, and the sight of it stirred within me a deep and primal fascination.  The visceral impact of this enormous sculpture in the context of our national anthem and other famous monuments never left me.  I began a precocious campaign for my parents to take me to see “Mountain Rushmore.”

Within ten years we were there, standing on the observation platform and gawking up at Gutzon Borglum’s colossal sculpture.  It was enthralling to be in the presence of such an iconic monument.  Prior to actually being there, Mount Rushmore existed only in pictures and films, and though my mind knew that there really is such a place, as far as my own experience was concerned, the actual physical entity might have been as mythical as Atlantis.  But there it truly was, a granite reality that could not be denied.

I envied the fortunate citizens whose proximity to Mount Rushmore would allow them many visits throughout their lives, and when I yearned for the opportunity to bring some of my precious time there home with me in a tangible way, the adjacent gift shop was ready to oblige.  For the price-conscious and children on a budget, very small Authentic Replica, brass-finish Rushmore sculptures were affordably available.  I gleefully bought one, which was destined to sit upon my bookshelf next to my Authentic Replica, brass-finish Sears Tower, to be joined after a later vacation by an Authentic Replica, brass-finish Liberty Bell.  The American Tourist’s Souvenir Triumvirate.

Years went by and I grew up, but my perception of Mount Rushmore never really changed from the way I saw it as a kid.  It was majestic, awe-inspiring, patriotic, a statement of ideals and an accomplishment to be revered.  Gutzon Borglum was nothing less than an American hero.  I always enjoyed seeing his sculpture parodied in a good-natured manner, but serious proposals to add a fifth face or alter the monument in any way struck me as blasphemous.  As for the relative appropriateness of its very creation in the first place, I never gave it any meaningful thought.   Mount Rushmore, in the context of my lifetime, has always been there.

Several years ago, I was perusing a bookshop when a pale profile of Abraham Lincoln caught my eye.  At the time, my wife and I were considering various options for a summer vacation with our daughters, and a trip out west was in the running.  I reached toward the shelf and pulled down a copy of John Taliaferro’s Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore.  Thumbing through its pages, it occurred to me that a return visit to the cherished destination of my youth would be richer if I were a little more educated about what I was seeing.

Taliaferro’s book traces the history of the Black Hills and its transformation into a tourist mecca with a detachment not found in the souvenir books at the Mount Rushmore gift shop.  Far from a denunciation of Borglum’s achievement, it nevertheless examines alternative assessments of the monument and asks what the gargantuan sculpture will suggest to sociologists and archaeologists of the future.  I learned a bit about why not everyone has held Rushmore in high esteem, and I began to question my own evaluation of it.  If I had been around at its inception, would I have thought its creation was a good idea?

With this illumination percolating in the back of my mind, I eagerly returned to Mount Rushmore in the summer of 2007 with my own family.  Despite my newfound empathy, I found myself just as transfixed in its presence as I had been when I was a boy.  It was just as captivating as I had remembered, and my wife and daughters were similarly impressed.  There is simply something mesmerizing about Mount Rushmore.  Perhaps it is due to the contradictory combination of its colossal size and its surprising humanity.  Standing at its base, it would almost seem natural if one of the stone heads were to blink or speak.  Would its artistic impact be much less if the faces were anonymous?

As Mount Rushmore approaches the 70th anniversary of its completion in 2011, it seems highly improbable that anything like it could be achieved in the United States today.  Imagine the public outcry if one of our least populated states tried to boost tourism by using millions of dollars in federal funds to create a massive, patriotic relief sculpture on a mountainside.  Cable news channel political pundits would lambaste the state for soaking our country’s taxpayers in the name of public art at a time of unprecedented national debt.  Skeletons would be exhumed from the closets of every historical figure whose countenance was under consideration for inclusion in the project.  OSHA regulations would hamstring the sculpting crew with cumbersome mandates.  A huge precautionary investment in numerous insurance policies would be made.  Environmentalists would decry the impact on local habitats, and corporations would try to bridge the funding gap by purchasing naming rights.  If the thing got built at all, its features would be determined after exhaustive market research revealed which four faces would appeal to the broadest demographic swath of Coca-Cola drinkers.  Perhaps young and old Elvis bookended by the Thriller and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Michael Jackson?  The Kings of Mount Rockandpop.  But I digress.

Whatever our opinions of it are, Mount Rushmore is as firm in the public consciousness as it is on the face of a once-obscure peak in the Harney Range of South Dakota.  As long as I have been alive, it has been one of the great American icons, and its stony visages will continue to stare across the Black Hills long after we are gone.