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Book Review

‘Liberty’s Torch’ by Elizabeth Mitchell

Elizabeth Mitchell’s book examines the planning and construction of the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frédéric August Bartholdi.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Mitchell’s book examines the planning and construction of the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frédéric August Bartholdi.

Though it’s one of the most enduring symbols of American democracy, surprisingly little has been written about the Statue of Liberty — and plenty of myths abound.

Enter Elizabeth Mitchell, who ably fills in the details of the genesis, planning, and construction of the monument, as well as its (initially tepid) reception.

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Frédéric August Bartholdi (1834-1904), the statue’s French designer, first conceived of the project as a lighthouse marking the opening of the Suez Canal, and though Egyptian officials ultimately turned him down, “he intended to build essentially the same figure on America’s shores.”

From the beginning, Mitchell’s narrative is streamlined and well-constructed around the picaresque character of Bartholdi, who was not just an aloof artist inspired by noble notions of freedom and liberty; he wanted to make his own mark on the world, “to make the largest statue in the world more than he cared to espouse an ardent political view or lavish praise on America.”

Proceeding chronologically, the author divides her story into three parts (“The Idea,’’ “The Gamble,’’ “The Triumph’’) and opens with just the right amount of initial biographical detail on the designer, bolstering her portrait with further historical background as the narrative warrants. She makes good use of quotations from Bartholdi and the other principals, shading in the background with deft strokes and always apt, telling details.

Bartholdi’s ambitions were evident early on, as he “clearly wished to make work that would intimidate even himself.” After the disappointment with the Egyptians, he traveled to the United States to find “a ready location in a country that, like him, dreamed big.” Though he seriously considered Central Park, Prospect Park, and other areas in New York City, he ultimately decided on Bedloe’s Island in the harbor, where the statue would shine unfettered.

Bartholdi initially proposed that France and America split the cost, but funding issues on both sides delayed construction, and the project languished for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the sculptor kept busy in his Paris workshop, raising funds and assembling the statue in pieces: first, Liberty’s arm and torch, which he displayed at the 1876’s World’s Fair in Philadelphia, and then the head, which he showed off at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition.

Along the way, Bartholdi realized the importance of showmanship and promotion — “What the people wanted was pleasure and awe” — and enlisted an impressive cast of characters to help him in all aspects of his work: e.g., Gustav Eiffel, Victor Hugo, Joseph Pulitzer, and even the president, Ulysses S. Grant, who granted him Bedloe’s as the official site. Finally, after further complications with the building of the pedestal, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886.

Mitchell successfully conveys the enormity of the undertaking and the infuriating amount of bureaucracy and old-fashioned glad-handing required to finish the job. Of course, this is not just Bartholdi’s story, and the author unearths a variety of intriguing tidbits: Due to the lack of initial public interest in New York, Bartholdi nearly decided to erect the statue in Boston; in his rabid fund-raising efforts through his newspaper, New York World, Joseph Pulitzer “created the first professional fundraising corps in the United States”; Bartholdi sought to gild the entire statue in gold, a plan deemed far too expensive.

In Bartholdi, Mitchell has found a fascinating character through which to view late-19th-century America, and she does readers a service by sifting fact from fiction in the creation of one our most beloved monuments, which would continue to “inspire the same sort of emotion and vision that led to her creation in the first place, the potent whimsy that made a young man from a picturesque village . . . [in] France dream that he, too, could achieve immortality.”

Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.
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