Book Review – Great White Fathers

By: Randolph Giudice
Oahu Island News

Great White Fathers, John Taliaferro’s exhaustive, but never exhausting story of Mt. Rushmore and its creator, Guston Borglum is a testament to the moving power of national monuments and an honest tribute to the artist whose life was as controversial as the mountain he carved.

Unlike prior biographers of the Scandinavian-born immigrant, Taliaferro doesn’t provide a simple reading of the intrepid sculptor who carved “one of the nation’s most luminescent beacons of democracy”. Here, perhaps for the first time, Borglum is a three-dimensional personality, full of contradictory impulses.

“Only he (Borglum) could have carved and completed Mt. Rushmore” Taliaferro writes, “and for better or worse he is every bit as emblematic of America as the four presidents he memorialized, in his passion, his persistence, his patriotism, and last but not least his prejudices.”

“I lead a one-man war pretty near all the time and my battlefield is the world and my enemies are mainly fools,” wrote Borglum to Helen Keller in 1939. Having tangled mightily with both the U.S. Mint and the American aircraft industry, no fight was too big for Borglum. Brilliant sculptures such as his humanistic, “Seated Lincoln” and his rousing “Wars of America” cemented his reputation as America’s patriotic heir to the French master, Rodin. But his infamous flight from Georgia after refusing to complete his memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain, proved him—as did so many other occasions—a bad business partner and uncompromising tyrant. Borglum’s rescue came in the form of a letter from historian Doane Robinson, inviting the maverick sculptor to carve a “heroic sculpture of unusual character” in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The sophistication of Borglum’s creation is fully captured by the author. A colossus, Mt. Rushmore displays Borglum’s talent for infusing life and reality into any sculpture, regardless of scale. Taliaferro delivers the monument to us in bold and exquisite detail: The “slight curve” of (Jefferson’s) lips…as subtle as the dimple Michelangelo gave to David’s knee.”

Appropriation, or theft—as South Dakota’s Sioux Indians have named it—is the calling card of the major historical players in Great White Fathers, from Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s invasion of Sioux territory, to Borglum’s desecration of the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) during the carving of Mt. Rushmore. Taliaferro makes it abundantly clear that monuments, built in praise of freedom, have come to symbolize exclusion for those who don’t agree with our vision of democracy.

Today, the heritage of Native Americans is a silent affair amidst the traffic swarming around Borglum’s stateside attraction. For some, their wish for Rushmore and other memo-rials is the fate of Ozymandias: “I’m positive,” said lawyer and Native American activist, Mary Black Elk “that forces of nature will take care of the desecrations…the earth will cleanse itself.” This doesn’t stop Elk from shaking down Taliaferro for money when he asks her for an interview. Charging him $325.00 under the guise of “cultural counseling” one can’t help but feel that history—in forcing them to compete with this trespassing giant—has transformed the Sioux into outright capitalists. Still, cosmic payback has to start somewhere.

In Great White Fathers, Taliaferro paints a fascinating portrait of an American original, and regardless of what label you hang on his colossus—beacon of democracy, or commercial spectacle—you emerge at the other end of this story, wanting to see it in the flesh.

Great White Fathers By John Taliaferro.
Hardcover - 453 pages - PublicAffairs/Perseus Books