Sometimes familiarity breeds not contempt but, well, too much familiarity. Such a familiar image as the Statute of Liberty is a good example. But if you want to re-energize your view of Liberty, read Elizabeth Mitchell’s new book, Liberty’s Torch: the Adventure to Build the Statute of Liberty. The books tells the story of a great public art adventure: from the epic imagination of French sculptor Frederick Auguste Bartholdi; to the engineering of Gustave Eiffel (he designed the interior ironworks that hold Liberty up against forces of time, weather and gravity); to the American, grass-roots fundraising by thousands of small donors and the determination of newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer (if you thought Liberty was a “gift” to America fully funded by its French donors, the book will correct that idea.)
Emma Lazarus’ poem at the time focused the American meaning of the statute, even more than its French sculptor did:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I think about my tempest-tost grandfather who as a teenager came over on the boat from Scotland. We are, together, a nation of tempest-tost immigrants.
The skin of Liberty was hammered out of copper sheets about the thickness of two stacked pennies. The common-man craftsmen whose millions of hammer strokes shaped Liberty over forms of wood and plaster; the populist donations of money; the American workers who climbed great heights, Gulliver’s Lilliputians, assembling Liberty in high winds and maritime weather—they are a part of it as much or more than the famous names.
Liberty, it seems, in epic art and in the lives of many, is tempest-tost.
Here’s Liberty’s hand and arm under construction in France, with the wood-and-plaster used as forms for hammering out the copper skin.