The World

The Creation of
The Statue of Liberty

Yasmin Sabina Khan
(Cornell University Press)
Teddy Roosevelt said "Like all Americans, I like big things; big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheatfields, railroads, and herds of cattle." He was a big man, too, and it was a big time back then, so they decided to build the biggest statue in the world, even higher than the Hermannsdenkmal of Detmold, Germany, a work commemorating a bloody vandal from the wilds to the east hellbent on uniting the nascent German state. (The Statue of Liberty was to rise 151 feet above its pedestal. Hermannsdenkmal was only 86 feet tall, complete with sword and pot-belly.)

Enlightening the World is the history of the conception of Statue of Liberty in the fertile brain of one Edouard Laboulaye of France, and the realization of it in the even more fertile brain of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Bartholdi constructed the statue in Paris, then supervised its deconstruction, crating, and shipping off to Bedloe's Island in New York harbor where it was stuck back together.

The most interesting parts of the book have to do with the way that Bartholdi's model, originally four feet high, "was carefully reproduced at successively larger scale in plaster."

    The second plaster model, measuring around 28 feet to the top of the head, or 36 feet with the arm and torch added, was marked into three hundred sections and used as the basis for another enlargement, again at roughly a factor of four.

Less interesting are Khan's suggestions as to where the details came from: why a torch instead of a sword, the image of "the tablets of law," the source of the seven spikes rising from Liberty's head, the origins of the flowing robe, the model for the august face (possibly Bartholdi's wife, possibly his mother), even the chain from which the right foot is stepping. "How many of these were intended, rather than perceived only in hindsight or never perceived at all by the statue's creators, is unknown," we are told.

    Neither Bartholdi nor Laboulaye left a record that explains their decisions.
§     §     §

There were doubts all around. When Americans were asked to contribute to the pedestal, most didn't seem too interested. They considered the whole thing a little odd, and couldn't figure out why they would have to fork over almost $300,000 for the base for the statue.

After looking at it carefully, you and I might wonder the same thing. Liberty might be inspiring, but the pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, is a pompous bloat of conflicting styles and inchoate thefts from other nineteenth century architecture. The mush of Doric columns, the screwy horizontal band of shields, the ridiculous loggia, all serve as a dog-lump to detract from the beauty of the upper story.

Enlightening the World is also a little lumpish itself. The pacing is slow and the asides --- including an excursion into the history of John Brown and a badly potted remake of 18th and 19th Century French history --- could have been dispensed with in favor of more nuts-and-bolts approach to the process of building the beautiful Ms. Liberty.

Worse, Ms. Khan misses the opportunity to point out that --- despite this "give me your tired/Your huddled masses" business --- in its current incarnation, America is well on the way to becoming a closed, oxygen-deprived state, blaming it all on something called "terrorism." Those of us who try to survive in the shadow of a new Berlin Wall built along the southwestern border of the United States know this cloture, unfortunately, first-hand.

Thank god those who were there to build the Statue of Liberty --- Irish immigrants under the direction of other immigrants from France and Italy --- missed this whole dreadful scene.

--- Leopoldo Rodriguez
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH