A Colossal Mistake

The thing about America that struck Gutzon Borglum was bigness. His parents had emigrated from little Denmark to the Wild West. So when their son John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was born in Bear Lake, Idaho, in 1867, the little guy awoke under big skies in big empty lands. When he was seven, the Borglums moved to Nebraska, which was like Idaho that way.

Gutzon Borglum

It wasn’t just the land and sky, but something about the size of men’s character that seemed almost comically huge. It made America’s story like a big children’s book with full-page illustrations. Europe was always having little wars you had to act out with lots of little metal soldiers, and maybe a painted little Napoleon. America had just one great big war. It was full of giants like Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It was a made-in-America war, and one that made America, the only American war that seemed to matter. True, America had been born in earlier wars. But even in those wars, all that you could imagine was the bigness of men like Washington and Jefferson, or that big painting by Benjamin West called “The Death of General Wolfe.”

Gurtzon Borglum studied painting, seriously, which meant moving to Europe. He studied art in Paris in the early 1890s, had paintings and sculptures shown in the best salons, then moved to London for success in royal circles. He absorbed the Arts and Crafts idea, the British movement that insisted that beauty is never produced by a machine but is almost always present in anything produced by hand in the traditional cottage ways.

He moved to New York, where he made the first piece of sculpture bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sculpted the twelve apostles for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “But he soon turned toward what his wife, Elizabeth Janes Putnam, a scholar in cuneiform and other Middle Eastern scripts, described as ‘the emotional value of volume,’” says his biography in the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Reviving the ancient Egyptian practice of carving gargantuan statues of political figures in natural formations of rock, he executed from a six-ton block of marble a colossal head of President Abraham Lincoln that was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.”

Yesterday, I discovered that Gutzon Borglum lived in 1924 and ‘25 in a beautiful house about a mile from where my wife and I just moved east of Atlanta. In the DeKalb History Center, which occupies the old stone courthouse in the Square in Decatur, Georgia, I saw an exhibit about the town where he lived, Avondale Estates. This was built as a kind of theme-park proto-suburb, a completely Tudor village modeled on Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. (Another bit of history: The first Waffle House was there, now a Waffle House museum. Another bit of history: its ordinance prohibiting yard signs kept it the most white community around Atlanta, since “For Sale” signs were illegal.) The exhibit displayed an article about Gutzon Borglum from the Atlanta Constitution of September 26, 1915.

The article describes Borglum visiting the area several times and getting excited about his plans to carve figures of up to 50 feet height into Stone Mountain, about nine miles northeast of here. He said his colossus would “stand alone in memorial and monumental work in the world.” He had been invited by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and owners of Stone Mountain, newly collaborating as the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial association.

Stone Mountain

When I read this 1915 article on the wall of the Avondale Estates exhibit, I had just finished reading an opinion column in the New York Times that morning about this period, when President Woodrow Wilson was officially segregating the U.S. government and his administration was naming military bases after Confederate generals. Wilson, a religious Southerner who was president of Princeton University, fastened the myth of a “Lost Cause” of honorable Southern warriors into federal policy. “Why America Joined the Cult of the Confederacy,” the column in the Times, points out that this was also a time of community-wide spectacle lynching to terrorize Blacks throughout the Deep South.

The article in The Atlanta Constitution doesn’t say anything about race. It’s all about “patriotic women,” honor, nobility and “the heroism of the confederate cause.” And it seems that Gutzon Borglum, the Danish-American from out West, was fully taken in by this perspective. He even joined the Klan. To him, the Civil War was America’s Iliad, a heroic tragedy (having nothing to do with emancipation) worthy of grandiose art. The article quotes at length something he had written in an art magazine about memorializing Lincoln, which was underway in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial.

Borglum didn’t design the statue of a sitting Abraham Lincoln (which was made of Georgia marble), or its giant temple. But he described what they should express. “A simple, honest, sincere, inspired, true creature that knew the straight road and went right through and brushed the unimportant aside. You will pick the particular giants who built this country – Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin. Those men will have an honorable place in that monument, and out of that group, going way back into the early eighteen hundreds, will arise this boy. We will assemble Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Seward, Stanton, and you will see him associated with them down through the friezes that will ornament this temple whenever it is built. . . .On the other side of the monument you will see struggling honestly pushing forward the southern cause, Lee, Stuart, Johnson, and then you will see them all united and the whole thing will close.”

This was how the Civil War looked to a certain artistic mind, as it looked at the time to an overwhelmingly white population outside the South, eager for healing, reunion and progress without having to face the meaning of the Great Migration out of the South. Borglum wasn’t deterred, if he even knew about it, by the “impressive services” held that Thanksgiving of 1915 atop Stone Mountain by a “new” secret organization calling itself the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (according to another Atlanta Constitution article on the wall of exhibit on Avondale Estates).

Borglum moved to Avondale Estates in 1924 to begin overseeing the carving of Confederate leaders on horseback, embossed on the side of the great granite outcropping. They remain there today. But the sculptor got only as far as the head of Robert E. Lee in 1925. That’s when Gutzon Borglum had a falling out with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and left. The split was said to be about money. I do wonder, though, if it was really about vision.The next sculptor re-designed the plan at a smaller scale, and blasted away Borglum’s head of Lee.

Borglum found another monumental project after that. He moved to South Dakota and created Mount Rushmore.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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1 Response to A Colossal Mistake

  1. Colon, Aly says:

    Hi Doug,

    Reading your Docs and musings transports me back to the time more essays offered what I might call narrative thinking.

    Such essays offered conversational thinking, minds at work. They exhibit the background of history, its link to our humanity, and a sense that such a literary exchange can invite the reader to think along the path of the writer.

    I always enjoy the literary walk you offer.

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