Great White Fathers

The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore

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 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.

"John Taliaferro has done a brilliant job of making the carving of Mount Rushmore vivid for us today. The story is absorbing and the book is a wonderful read.”
Larry McMurtry
author of “Lonesome Dove” and “Crazy Horse”
“Taliaferro’s narrative sparkles…. The most fascinating aspect of [his] book is a recurring theme that’s just as relevant now as it was in Borglum’s day: Monuments are controversial.”
Forbes FYI
“In Great White Fathers, John Taliaferro … does justice to the remarkable story behind the creation of this ‘Shrine of Democracy,’ which many today probably consider a natural part of the American landscape. It is anything but that, as Taliaferro details in superlative prose, with fascinating depth and splendid sensitivity.”
“If ever there was a book that could make one long to visit an American landmark – this is it. John Taliaferro’s insightful account of the sculpting of Mount Rushmore is both a telling piece of art history and an enthralling analysis of the cultural, technological, and political forces that helped shape this singular monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota.”
Barnes & Noble
in selecting Great White Fathers for “Discover Great New Writers,” 2003
Great White Fathers is John Taliaferro’s [own] gift to posterity, since turning the story of one stone carver’s obsession into a lively history book is no small feat.”
Boston Globe
“Taliaferro’s crisp prose captures not only a driven man but also an early 20th-century America enchanted with its own myth…. [T]his book is a strange mix of the glorious and the disturbing … a major book about an American character – and the early 20th century monument that was an expression of that brash, confident collective personality.”
Kansas City Star
“It takes a skilled writer and reporter to make an old, familiar story fresh, and in his book, Great White Fathers, Taliaferro excels, capturing the age and the personalities that led to the creation of a modern-day Colossus…. Taliaferro’s lens in the book is broad and his eye is inquisitive, roaming widely to give the complete story…. At the last page, the reader is left with a sense of having learned much about an obscure and complicated chapter of American history. There is also the wistful hope that there might have been just a little more. And in the writing game, this truly is the sign of a tale well told.”
San Antonio Express-News
Great White Fathers is an engaging tale well told. Taliaferro positions the bigness of Borglum alongside the subtler cracks and shadings of his super-size legacy. This book is an insightful period piece, appreciably enriching – and no minivan required.”
Austin American-Statesman
“What a fabulous, infuriating bastard, Gutzon Borglum. He dies three quarters of the way through the book, but through the vivid picture Taliaferro paints, he lingers over every subsequent page, like a peevish and arrogant ghost….”
Missoula Independent
“John Taliaferro’s engrossing Great White Fathers gives us fascinating facts aplenty…. [N]ever tedious, [it] meshes art, history, politics and abnormal psychology into an absorbing account of how a familiar symbol of national hubris was made.”
Savannah News
“Taliaferro makes nonfiction read like a historical saga…. His words read fast and easy. (Too bad history textbooks aren’t written this well.)
Argus News
Sioux Falls
“John Taliaferro has done a brilliant job of making the carving of Mount Rushmore vivid for us today. The story is absorbing and the book is a wonderful read.”
Larry McMurtry
Thursday, January, 01, 1970