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`American Places'

Mount Rushmore

SO dominating were the four Presidents [at Mount Rushmore], each one an American original, that for a while I couldn't think about anyone else. But then I became aware of a fifth man tugging at my sleeve, demanding equal time. Gutzon Borglum was no less an American original. "Americans harbor a special love for the impossible task," says the opening sentence of an orientation film that shows Borglum's crew blasting the stone around the emerging Presidents. One shot in particular sticks in my mind. The o riginal plan put Jefferson at Washington's left (as seen from below), and by 1933 the workers had roughly carved his hair, his eyes and his nose. At that point Borglum began to run out of good rock and also encountered a large crack in the granite. He simply dynamited the half-finished Jefferson into the gorge and started a new head on Washington's other side. That's not a man suffering from a failure of nerve. Jefferson never did fully cooperate. Because Borglum carved him as he looked at 33, when he wrote

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the Declaration of Independence, he appears younger and more feminine than the other Presidents, partly because of his wig. Many early visitors were disappointed. They said it wasn't a good likeness of Martha Washington.

Borglum was the son of an immigrant Dane, born in 1867 in Idaho, a product of the frontier in his view of America as a land of limitless opportunity. Like other aspiring artists of his generation, he went to Paris in the 1890s to study. There he met Auguste Rodin, who became his mentor. It was Rodin, apparently, who taught Borglum how to use light to animate the eyes and the sculptured head. At Mount Rushmore, what appears to be a pupil in the eyes of the Presidents is a protruding shaft of granite almos t two feet long.

"In the afternoon, when the sunlight throws the shadows into that socket," one of the rangers, Fred Banks, told me, "you feel that the eyes of those four men are looking right at you, no matter where you move. They're peering right into your mind, wondering what you're thinking, making you feel guilty: `Are you doing your part?' " Appomattox

BUT through the stillness [at Appomattox] one theme kept booming in my ears: forgiveness and rebirth. "Grant and Lee had to look far into the future," [National Park Ranger] Ron Wilson said. "They knew that the energies that had been given to divisions for so many years would have to be devoted to rebuilding the country. Their meeting wasn't one of those peace conferences that plant the seeds of another war. There was no vindictiveness. The terms that Grant offered at Appomattox set the tone for the othe r three surrenders by Confederate units. They accepted exactly the same terms that Grant offered Lee."....

The village [of Appomattox Court House], I felt, existed in a cul-de-sac of history, above politics and almost outside time, as if it had been brought to life for just one event. Only three people were strongly alive to me there. Two of them, Lee and Grant, continued to radiate powerful qualities that Americans still value and honor: one symbolizing nobility and the aristocratic tradition of the old South, the other symbolizing the self-made common man of the new North, Midwest and West.

The third person was the inescapable Lincoln. The man would never get out of my life. Appomattox was, finally, his show. I could almost see him standing over the little table in the parlor of the McLean house, where Grant was scribbling the surrender terms. I knew that Lincoln had often spoken of wanting a merciful peace, but I didn't know whether he and Grant had found time to discuss it, and I asked Ron Wilson when the two men had last met. He said they had met on April 1 at City Point - on the "River Queen," in the James River - and had talked at length about the rapidly approaching end of the war and the civil disarray it was bound to bring.

"You just know," Wilson told me, "that Lincoln said, `Let 'em down easy.' "

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* Excerpted from "American Places: A Writer's Pilgrimage to 15 of This Country's Most Visited and Cherished Sites," by William Zinsser, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1992 William Zissner, used with permission of the author.

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