IN 1916, Gutzon Borglum sat on a stump and stared at a plum-colored mountain as an idea began to take shape in his head. It was a mad idea, as mad as a plum-colored mountain ;but the mountain wee before his eyes, and the idea was definitely in his brain. It was as impossible to dislodge it as it would have been to dislodge the mountain, and the mountain was solid granite, nine hundred feet high and nearly a mile long.
The sculptor knew that he was yielding to the influence of his environment. It was a strange environment to him, and it played tricks with his vision, physical and mental. That plum-colored mountain, for instance, was in reality gray. He knew it was gray because he had been scrambling all over it for the last three days, and had satisfied himself that it was a monolith of Georgia granite, without a tree, or shrub, or blade of grass, without even a patch of earth that could disguise the color of the stone. But the afterglow of a southern sunset had worked magic upon it and viewed, as he was viewing it, from a distance of half a mile, its plum color was no more to be disputed than was the existence of the little curled moon that rode in a pale sky over the mountain's shoulder.
Gutzon Borglum was facing a problem as difficult as any that the sons of Adam have to solve. He had destroyed an ideal and had been called upon to replace it with another and a better one. Three days before he had been asked to carve upon that mountain a memorial, and not only had he refused to do it, but so clearly had he demonstrated the inappropriateness of the concept, that he made it impossible for that idea ever to be taken up again. A group of women, most of them aged women, had broached the subject to him. They had written to him in Connecticut and asked him to come down to Georgia to hear them. They had heard of him as the sculptor of the great head of Lincoln in the capitol at Washington. They had selected him to render the same service to their own hero. They asked him to carve on the base of Stone Mountain in bas-relief a colossal head of Lee, ten feet across. He had come, at their expense. He had looked at the mountain. He had told them that to carve such a thing as they had in mind on that vast expanse of stone would be equivalent to sticking a postage-stamp on the side of a barn. It would be absurd. It would be ridiculous.
After a silence, one of them said, "It has been our dream for years. You have destroyed it. What have you to say?"
He said, "Give me three days to answer."
To-morrow was the third day. They would be com- ing for their answer then, and Gutzon Borglum sat on a stump in the sunset's after-glow, still with nothing to say, and stared at the plum-colored mountain.
It was maddening, for the letter that had come to Connecticut had mentioned a project to which he had long aspired. That project was the making of a head of Robert E. Lee. For many years the artist had dreamed, in ambitious moments, of three great heads that should preserve his fame eternally, one of Lincoln, one of Lee and one of Christ. The head of Lincoln he had accomplished. It stood in 1916, as it stands now, in the rotunda of the national capitol. Toward the others he had as yet done nothing in stone or in clay. But he had devoted much attention to perfecting his knowledge of the career and character of General Lee. He had begun to read up on him about the time he finished his head of Lincoln. He had become absorbed in him. With astonishment and increasing delight, he devoured everything he could lay hands on that described the record of that brilliant commander and great gentleman. Now the opportunity to do the work had been put before him, but in such form that he could not avail himself of it.
The women who had met him were representatives of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Their plan he could not consider seriously, but they themselves fascinated him. Among them was the writer of the letter that had brought him South. She was Mrs. Helen Plane, "grandmother of the Confederacy," then in her eighty-seventh year. Her husband had been a surgeon in the Confederate army. On the field of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, as the Confederates called it, he had been shot down while attempting to remove the wounded, and had died a few days later. The young widow, accompanied by a negro servant, had made a journey into the war zone, and had brought the body of her husband back to Alabama, where she lived.
She did not offer to shake hands with Borglum when he arrived. Long afterward, he found that it was because she believed he had been born in Connecticut, and feared that he might be a son of the man who fired the shot that left her desolate. Nonetheless, she had written to him and invited him to come to Georgia. He had carved the head of Lincoln. No less a man should carve the head of Lee. That man might be the embodiment of all that was odious to her, but in the service of the great commander, she was ready to stifle her personal feelings as resolutely as the soldier she loved long ago had stifled his personal fears.
Borglum was impressed. He was staggered. Here was something above and beyond his experience. He was familiar with memorials and with memorial committees. He had seen them undertake, and had shared in, huge operations, involving enormous expense. He had seen committees handle hundreds of thousands easily, almost nonchalantly. These women had next to nothing. He had a shrewd suspicion that his bare traveling expenses would amount to a considerable drain upon their treasury. But he had never seen such burning intensity, such complete devotion to a cause that the world believed buried and forgotten decades ago. Some people have smiled at the fervor of the Daughters of the Confederacy, but it did not amuse Borglum. He reflected with amazement upon what manner of men they must have been who could wring from the hearts of their people so fine a tribute after fifty years. His impression of Lee, already great, became gigantic, for in the devotion, almost fanatic, of the Daughters of the Confederacy, he saw the impress of a mighty spirit. Their loyalty he traced directly to the loyalty of Lee, and so endowed it with something of the same splendor.
So when they said to him, "What have you to say?', he felt guilty, and begged for time. What they asked of him, he could not do. It was unthinkable to commemorate this great man and the greater spirit of which he was the embodiment, in a sculpture that would be as insignificant, in its surroundings, as a postage-stamp on the side of Abarn. Not only was it unthinkable to him, but now that he had showed them the artist's viewpoint, it was unthinkable to them, also.
Yet their question was unanswered. He had nothing to say. His three days' investigation of the mountain had given him a thorough acquaintance with the medium in which they proposed to work, but nothing more. By climbing over its surface and making an intimate examination, frequently at risk of breaking his neck, he had discovered that Stone Mountain was an extraordinary geological formation, in that it was a single mass, without an important fissure anywhere, and of curiously uniform color. Its surface would bear carving, without doubt, but where could the carving be so placed that the enormous mass of the hill would not overwhelm it? What sort of sculpture could be imagined that would not be absurd against a background so tremendous?
These questions were still unanswered as Gutzon Borglum sat on his stump and stared at the plum colored mountain in the afterglow. Yet he knew in his soul that if they were not answered, he must fail in his own concept of his ability to create great dramatic art. It would simply be more than he could endure to face those women and tell them that, in so far as any help from him was concerned, their loyalty was futile, and the greatness of their spirit must remain forever frustrate. The hour had struck. Gutzon Borglum must measure up to the task now, or confess himself beaten in the greatest crisis of his artistic career.
But as he sat, a mad notion began to possess him. Perhaps the afterglow worked magic upon him as it had upon that mass of granite which had softened before his eyes into a cloudlike mass, inviting, delicate, exquisite. At any rate, something lifted him out of himself, transformed him from a sculptor thinking in the ordinary terms of his art, thinking in terms of statues of individual men, thinking of a head of Lee. He saw in this memorial the spirit of the South, embodied most magnificently, perhaps, in the commander-in-chief but nevertheless the spirit of a great host. He would not carve Lee, he would carve the host, Lee at its head, to be sure, but Lee followed in the memorial, as he was followed in life, and as he was followed in death for fifty years, by a host of his countrymen, struggling under heavy burdens, weary and footsore, but indomitable! Already he could begin to see them on that mighty cliff, horsemen, foot-soldiers, guns, caissons, transport-wagons, an interminable column winding its way it knew not whither, but confident in the leadership of a great man, passionately loyal to the standard he had raised.
The right or the wrong of that quarrel did not matter. It was the loyalty that counted, the loyalty that was worthy of the greatest memorial that could be raised, worthy of the utmost that the genius of any sculptor could achieve. Here was a task in which he might exhaust every resource that he could command of hand and of brain, assured that if he performed it worthily, his fame could not perish while the granite endured. The sun had set upon the Confederacy, but the loyalty it had engendered hung over the land like this afterglow; then through the afterglow let no single figure, but Lee's army come marching once again in a final assault, not upon some crest of Gettysburg, but upon the memories of their people. Let the figures be cut tall and deep in the surface of the rock, that the very hill might dwindle in comparison with the greatness of the human spirit. Let the mountain bear witness that although its columns were shattered and its banners borne down, as long as the human heart is capable of loyalty to an ideal, the army of Lee will march as those gray figures struggle toward some eternal goal.
Seven years were to pass before the first drill bit into the stone in accomplishment of the dream. They were to be years of incessant struggle against overwhelming odds, against the inertia of men as well as the inertia of the mountain, years marked by innumerable defeats and many days of secret despair. But mercifully all those years were hidden from Gutzon Borglum when he rose and went to his house that night with his answer in his heart.
THE duration and the burden of the struggle were hidden also from the women who received their answer the next day, although none of them failed to realize that it would be long and arduous. What the sculptor proposed was to carve on the side of the mountain a sculpture, heroic in size, representing the army of the Confederacy, with portrait figures of its leaders. The group was to be fifty feet high, and probably four or five-hundred feet long. It was an audacious proposal, a gigantic concept. Yet, as time revealed, it was but a timid, hesitant first step along the road that the project was destined to follow. When work actually began, it was upon a design two-hundred feet high, and thirteen-hundred feet long!
The story of Stone Mountain is the history of three struggles against three distinct problems, calling for the exercise of three different talents: those of the engineer; of the publicist; and of the artist. In 1916, the group in Atlanta had two assets, and only two, neither of which had the slightest value in the eyes of the world at large. There was the passionate devotion