Cover image for Great white fathers : the story of the obsessive quest to create Mount Rushmore
Great white fathers : the story of the obsessive quest to create Mount Rushmore
Taliaferro, John, 1952-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : PublicAffairs, [2002]

Physical Description:
453 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
F657.R8 T35 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The unlikely story of one of the oddest monuments in American history, its obsessive mastermind, and our misguided attempts to create an American heritage.. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, hoped that ten thousand years from now, when archaeologists came upon the four sixty-foot presidential heads carved in the Black Hills of South Dakota, they would have a clear and graphic understanding of American civilization. Borglum, the child of Mormon polygamists, had an almost Ahab-like obsession with Colossalism-a scale that matched his ego and the era. He learned how to be a celebrity from Auguste Rodin; how to be a political bully from Teddy Roosevelt. He ran with the Ku Klux Klan and mingled with the rich and famous from Wall Street to Washington. Mount Rushmore was to be his crowning achievement, the newest wonder of the world, the greatest piece of public art since Phidias carved the Parthenon. But like so many episodes in the saga of the American West, what began as a personal dream had to be bailed out by the federal government, a compromise that nearly drove Borglum mad. Nor in the end could he control how his masterpiece would be received. Nor its

Author Notes

John Taliaferro is a former senior editor at Newsweek.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

On page one of this history of Mt. Rushmore, Taliaferro proposes to answer "the questions that any archaeologist would ask": Who are the men represented, how were they chosen, how were they carved, by whom, who visits this shrine? In the end, this overly modest mission statement is the only false note in an impressive work. Like the outsized sculptures blasted out of a granite mountainside, this history, by a former Newsweek editor, is massive, descriptive yet never blandly representational and filled with characters as fully realized as the Mt. Rushmore busts. The central figure is Rushmore's "father"-sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), a fascinating study in contradictions: a great talent, but a hopeless businessman; a patriot who was also a bigot; a family man who lied about his parentage and ditched his first, much older wife to marry a younger woman who could bear children. Taliaferro (Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs) also uses the story of a monument as a springboard from which to explore the tensions within the American dream: an empire built on slave labor and on land stolen from the Indians; reverence for the common man combined with an infatuation with larger-than-life heroes; a love of the landscape that often takes a backseat to the quest for profit. Like Borglum, Taliaferro set himself a Sisyphean task and has produced a work that is both inspiring and thought provoking. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Gutzon Borglum conceived and mostly executed one of the most monumental sculptures of the 20th century: the faces of four presidents carved into rock in South Dakota. These faces have kept the Black Hills alive in the minds of a generally accepting American public and served as a sometime provocation, sometime source of amused financial opportunity for the Lakota Sioux. Taliaferro (Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs) reconstructs the project's history and examines Lakota-white relations and larger questions of racial identities. This book is almost identical in subject and scope to Jesse Lancher's recent Mount Rushmore: An Icon Reconsidered, and it is as good but no better, which means that both are worth acquiring by public and academic libraries alike. Taliaferro's is the more conventional history, Lancher's the livelier travelog.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This historical biography with a dose of aesthetic critique framed by travelogue focuses on sculptor Gutzon Borglum's obsessive quest to shape Mount Rushmore into a national memorial. Initially, readers learn something about the Black Hills, their importance to Native peoples, and their preemption by the US. As the story unfolds, readers meet Borglum--egomaniac artist, political grandstander, and common conman, driven to win commissions for heroic statues and sculptures. Always short of funds, always racing the clock, and forever procrastinating, one wonders how he ever accomplished any of the commissions he won, or even why he won them. The book also describes the US art scene in which he operated at the turn of the century, and which he disdained, and the political and technical requirements of actually carving the faces of the book's title. The author concludes with commentary on the continuing saga of Native peoples' attempts to retrieve lost lands. The book is for general readers--entertaining reading with occasional flinty insights, but without the critical edge of an academic work. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General collections, public libraries. J. S. Wood University of Southern Maine



On the mountain, geology had a way of confounding geometry. Moving men about on a four-hundred-foot wall of granite was far more difficult than calibrating inches and degrees. A mountain carver began by cinching himself into a leather boatswain's chair attached to a three-quarter-inch steel cable. Also attached to the cable was a seventy-five pound jackhammer, which had its own separate umbilical, a stiff air hose. The carver was required to walk backward over the side of the cliff, hefting his ungainly gear, and then allow himself to be lowered, one step at a time, by the operator of a hand-cranked windlass. The winch man sat in a shack located well back from the precipice and out of view of the carver. He had to depend on the eyes and voice of a "call boy," a youngster who perched on the brow of the mountain and relayed signals between the man with the crank and the man with the jackhammer-"down six inches," "up a foot," and so on. Needless to say, a man who had drilled in a mine was not a guaranteed master of mountain carving. Even if he was able to adjust to the height and exposure-no small feat-there was still the matter of balance and leverage. If he lost his footing, he was in no danger of falling. (The cable was plenty strong.) Instead he merely smacked up against the side of the unforgiving cliff with an angry steel bit chattering between his legs. To get a decent purchase on the granite, carvers learned to lean back, wedge the drill bit between their boots, and brace the hammer against their stomachs. One of the drillers who got the hang of it was Norman "Hap" Anderson, who worked on Rushmore six years. "My belly was so hard in those days," he recalled, "that my wife could dance on my stomach in high-heeled shoes." Excerpted from Great White Fathers by John Taliaferro Copyright © 2002 by John Taliaferro Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Preface: Hiding in Plain Sightp. 1
1 American Horsep. 5
2 The Thieves Roadp. 23
3 Garden of the Godsp. 47
4 Great Manp. 65
5 Art for Americap. 87
6 Insurgent Among Insurgentsp. 117
7 Size Mattersp. 147
8 A Rock and a Hard Placep. 185
9 Cliff Notesp. 219
10 Worthy of Immortalityp. 249
11 Sorry Old Warriorp. 293
12 Expedient Exaggerationp. 319
13 Doksa Black Hillsp. 347
14 Presidents Viewp. 381
Acknowledgments and Bibliographical Notesp. 417
Indexp. 441