Book Review: Readings

John Taliaferro


Great White Fathers

by John Taliaferro

PublicAffairs, 453 pp., $27.50

The history of American development, innovation, expansion, and engineering is well-noted, rooted as it is in contemporary culture's diluted sense of destiny and the mentality that any problem can be solved; that anything can get better with better invention and infrastructure. But what of monuments? What weird, self-aggrandizing, vaguely nostalgic niche do those occupy? Why have we built what we've built, and why have we honored who we've honored?

And what the hell is with Mount Rushmore?

Long a fascinating sculptural accomplishment and second only to the Statue of Liberty as the man-made American landmark, Rushmore is known primarily for its climactic presence in North by Northwest and its corny commemorative tourist ceremonies. The presidential busts, too. It's known for that. There are those out there who truly believe that the four faces of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln -- it was originally intended that their full figures adorn the bluff -- are a natural formation: Surely you've heard that funny anecdote. But the most attractive element of former Newsweek editor and founder of Austin's Third Coast magazine John Taliaferro's Great White Fathers is only once or twice removed from that anecdote in terms of absurdity: He illuminates the life of the man who built the thing (and how he built it), and it's an amazing story. We've know it's there, we've seen it or at least images of it, and we have a hunch that the Black Mountain Sioux aren't entirely pleased with the thing, but we don't know much about Gutzon Borglum. We do now.

Borglum was delusional and bombastic, a self-mythologized sculpting wizard who very well might have been a genius if he could've ever managed to finish his projects. A racist. A classist. A fanatic of Hegel and Carlyle and the Great Man Theory, he seemed bent on etching his name into some chunk of immortality.

Gutzon Borglum believed in the role of the Great Man in history. It was a notion impressed upon him by his father, an eccentric but persuasive patriarch. He focused on it intently in his art, devoting his career to sculpture of great men, climaxing with Mount Rushmore. And he demonstrated it in his bearing -- by the way he treated people whom he perceived to be of meaner talent, intellect, or social station and especially by the way he strove to win the patronage and join the peerage of America's brightest, wealthiest, and most powerful men and women. In his heart of hearts, Borglum believed he was a Great Man himself.

Taliaferro's handling of the man's psyche and eccentricities is one thing; his command of storytelling both anecdotal and narrative, his grasp of the facts and the stakes involved in such an endeavor, and his fierce gaze at the bigger picture are something else entirely. Impressive would be short change; masterful might be too much. But nailing a book of such ambition that happens to be a charmingly good read -- especially when considering how far he has progressed since his work on Charles Russell and Edgar Rice Burroughs -- is a landmark in and of itself.

John Taliaferro will join H.W. Brands, Bobby Bridger, James Haley, and Stephen Harrigan on the "Magnificent Obsessions" panel at 11am on Sunday, Nov. 17, in Capitol Extension Room E2.010.

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John Taliaferro, Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mt. Rushmore, PublicAffairs, Texas Book Festival 2002

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