Art, Landmarks; Continent: North America, Europe

Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty by Elizabeth Mitchell

  • Do you picture crowds of eager New Yorkers welcoming France’s gift to the U.S. as she floated regally into New York harbor with a big red bow on her crown? That’s not exactly what happened.
  • 310 pages (271 pages, including Epilogue but excluding Acknowledgments and references)

I’d had this book on my shelf for some months, supposing that I might post something about it for July 2016. With Paris in November headlines, however, the book caught my eye again. We Americans consider the Statue of Liberty so emblematic of a cherished value, a patriotic symbol, but you can’t look at her for longer than a minute without thinking of France, too. Feeling a bit softhearted, then, I opened the book and discovered a different story than the one I thought I knew.

Goodbye, Myth No. 1: The Artist Was Inspired by Some Romantic Ideal of Liberty                                                                                                                                

French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi came from a family just well-to-do enough to qualify him as a gentleman, although he still had to do some kind of work for a living. He could afford to be an artist and still live in a reasonable style. Good thing, too, as his artistic vision of giant statuary attracted only a limited number of patrons. Scale was Bartholdi’s interest, the muse buzzing in his ear, and while he certainly did other artistic projects in metal, designs for colossal metal figures filled his design notebooks and his ambitions. He wanted his artistic legacy to physically tower over someplace, as a symbol of something.

His first serious attempt to get funding and support for a project of this size was in Egypt, but the Khedive refused to bankroll Bartholdi’s idea for a giant metal slave woman holding a lantern aloft as a lighthouse in his harbor. Egypt had another tremendously expensive and ambitious project going on already — the Suez Canal. Bartholdi would need to convince a different patron or group of patrons to fund his vision, and that’s when the booming, optimistic American culture came to mind.

Goodbye, Myth No. 2: The Artist Admired America

Bartholdi needed to cross the Atlantic to make his case to Americans for his colossal female figure, now reworked into a statue symbolizing freedom. He viewed wealthy Americans as an ideal mark for his sales pitch. Americans would buy anything – make anything – if only to prove they could. Vulgar, perhaps, but useful for a French artist who carried himself off with an educated, Continental confidence but needed some serious money to do the only thing that interested him. He found Americans loud and, if not uncouth, then certainly lacking in taste and good breeding.

If that seems harsh, consider the New York City Bartholdi arrived in during the 1880s. A cacophony of languages was spoken in any public space, most of the speakers significantly less well-educated than Bartholdi. Carriage horses worked until dying in the harness, their carcasses left in the street for a cleanup crew to collect when they got to it. The city was growing so quickly that its mushrooming infrastructure had a shockingly haphazard look compared to well-planned Paris – nothing in Manhattan looked like it belonged with anything else. The visual chaos offended Bartholdi’s sensibilities, but he also wondered that no one else seemed bothered by it. If these people weren’t aesthetically sensitive, then perhaps Bartholdi’s statue would appeal to them simply because it was big.

Goodbye, Myth No. 3: The Statue Was the Gift of the French People

Actually, this one is technically true…sort of. Bartholdi was able to round up some patrons on the French side who would pop for the statue herself, but the French government hardly sponsored it as some sort of diplomatic gesture of goodwill. From the standpoint of French businessmen, it made sense to firm up ties to that economy, and the idea of liberty had special appeal in a culture where memories of revolution were newer than they were in the U.S.

However, the Americans would have to pony up for the land and whatever pedestal they were going to put her on, not to mention the electrical wiring to turn her into a lighthouse. The American Committee that would eventually form among wealthy American businessmen in New York struggled with the budget for developing Bedloe’s Island, the projected home of Liberty (known then as “Bartholdi’s Statue”). They held concerts and dinners, and did the sort of things wealthy Americans did for smaller-scale fundraising, but it wasn’t getting the job done. Worse, enthusiasm for the project was waning among potential donors.

Six Degrees of American Liberty?

Enter Joseph Pulitzer, himself an immigrant to the U.S. who made his fortune. Pulitzer put Bartholdi’s Statue in the headlines and kept articles about her in his paper to maintain public awareness. He encouraged donations and collected them from his vast readership. Eventually, American pocket change made it to American Committee coffers, sufficient even for budget overruns from mismanagement by the American construction team. I’d already read some about Pulitzer in books about Nellie Bly and later on about a grisly New York City murder, but I didn’t know about his key role in making Liberty a practical reality. As long as we’re dropping names, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Victor Hugo and Gustave Eiffel each have more than a couple of sentences each in this tale. Author Mitchell gives us vivid personal descriptions of these famous figures and links them meaningfully to the tale she tells.

Conclusion

The details I’ve shared in this review purge some of the romance from Liberty’s story, but the tale is bigger than this essay. Mitchell has disabused me of certain myths about how the statue arrived in New York City, but I still feel a surge of patriotism when I look at this remarkable symbol. Liberty was created by a Frenchman who tried to build a cousin to her in Egypt instead, and her American fundraising committee struggled to wring the pennies for her pedestal out of its public. Yet, the people who did send in their pennies were largely recent immigrants who certainly had other, more immediate uses for the coins. Perhaps they sensed the irony that this great copper lady might not seem welcome in the U.S. when she arrived if they didn’t make it clear that she belonged here. Now that I know that piece of her story, I appreciate her better.

Image: Photo by Ronile on Pixabay.com.

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