Published: Tue Oct 29, 2002To poet Tom Saya, Mount Rushmore embodies the strengths and weaknesses of the American vision; it's as much a symbol of American democracy as it is our arrogance.
Collaborating with Jim McKelly of Auburn University, Saya, an assistant Tennessee Tech University English professor, has captured that paradox on film with the documentary "A Promised Land: Rushmore and America," which airs at 4 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 10, on WCTE-TV. Part documentary and part poetic essay, the film's range is as grand as the monument it describes.
Saya and McKelly, while documenting the construction of Mount Rushmore and the powerful character of its creator, Gutzon Borglum, see the monument as an embodiment of America's strengths, weaknesses and ambiguities. "A Promised Land," like good literature, asks big questions, but leaves the answers to the interpretation of the viewer.
"Mount Rushmore is a colossal, granite symbol of our democracy -- as strong as a mountain, yet riddled with cracks," said Saya, who wrote and narrated the film. "Is it truly a 'Shrine of Democracy' or a tourist trap? Though Rushmore is a grand sculpture, should we have defaced our natural world to achieve it? And should we have blasted the heads of our patriarchs in the middle of the Lakota Indians' holy mountains? Does Rushmore represent an arrogant, rapacious history of conquest? Or our desire for opportunity and possibility, and the magnitude and delicate gravity of our dreams?"
The national memorial in Black Hills, S.D., was completed in 1941, following 14 years of work directed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Sculptural portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, were meant to personify, respectively, the nation's founding, political philosophy, preservation, and expansion and conservation.
The choice of those four presidents was somewhat controversial; Indians and women argued for other images to be represented in the monument but were refused. In current, arguably more multicultural times, some people view the monument as non-inclusive or even racist.
"Rushmore straddles the fence," said Saya. "It shows that we are making giants. The question is, are we better off with such giants?"
Saya, whose poems have been published in "The Berkeley Poetry Review," "Greensboro Review," "Poetry East" and other magazines and journals, is writing a collection of essays on Mount Rushmore. He and McKelly spent the summer of 2001 taping interviews and shooting on location.