Great White Fathers
The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore
Borglum 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.
Perhaps it is this very bombast that makes Mount Rushmore such an evocative and provocative masterpiece – inspiring and unsettling all at once. In Great White Fathers, author John Taliaferro chronicles the heroic struggle to shape the four faces of Rushmore, and then he shows us the warts, too. He reveals the astonishing backstory of America’s “Shrine of Democracy” – how the Black Hills were snatched from the Lakota Sioux; the grueling and perilous task of carving mammoth faces with dynamite and jackhammers while swinging from a five-hundred-foot cliff; the impact of auto tourism and crass commercialism on the land and lifestyles of the Great Plains.
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 Gutzon Borglum over the brink. Nor in the end could Borglum control how his masterpiece would be received by future generations.
Great White Fathers is at once the biography of a man and the biography of a place, told through travelogue, interviews, and investigation of the vast records left behind by one of America’s most eccentric, and emblematic, visionaries. It proves that the best American stories are not simple; they are complex and contradictory, at times humorous, at other times tragic.