Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2005


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 2005, pp. 119-22.


Copyright 2005 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln



Wandering through Keystone an evening not long ago and looking above the trees, I could see Mt. Rushmore in the distance. Apparently the lighting ceremony had just ended, and as I looked at those faces of Washington, Jefferson, T. R., and Lincoln, I felt a tinge of excitement. But why? I had seen them many times before. In fact, I spent a summer working for the concessionaire at the monument, serving food in the old Buffalo Dining Room. Every day I stared at those faces as I asked people if they wanted fried chicken or beef and gravy. In recent years, I have lived in the vicinity of the mountain. By now that carving should be old news. But obviously, those faces say something to me, and until I read these books by John Taliaferro and Jesse Larner, I never considered exactly why Mt. Rushmore moves me or exactly what the monument means, or should mean, to the millions of people who visit it each year.

Like the nearly three million others who gaze at Rushmore annually, Taliaferro and Larner made their own pilgrimages to the mountain, each shaping a personal narrative as part of his story. But looking at the same mountain, they come away with entirely different experiences. In general, Taliaferro liked what he saw, and his book praises not only the quality of the sculpture, but the meaning behind it. His history covers all aspects of Rushmore's past, from inspiration to consternation. On the other hand, Larner virtually ignores the monument itself, dwelling instead on the sins it seemingly hides. To him, Mt. Rushmore represents an American ideology of conquest, and he wants to debunk the myths he sees embodied in it.

Recounting his visit, Taliaferro explains that the carving aroused' in him such basic questions as who were these four men whose faces stare out at the landscape, why were they chosen, and who was the person who carved the mountain? He builds his account around these questions. But this is not just a story about Mt. Rushmore, for Taliaferro realizes that any telling requires examining the life and times of its contentious sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. Indeed, Taliaferro has combined two books in one: a biography of Borglum, and the actual history of the project, in which, of course, Borglum plays a major role. Taliaferro hints at this dual function in his title: "Great White Fathers" naturally refers to the presidents; "The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mt. Rushmore" most clearly points to Borglum. But there is overlap. Since Borglum saw himself as a "great man" and fully believed in the role of great men in history, he too can be seen as a "Great White Father."