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Statue of Liberty

Entry updated 20 June 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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The Statue of Liberty – universal nickname for the statue in New York harbour whose official name is "Liberty Enlightening the World" – took some time to climb her pedestal. Shortly after he had designed a lighthouse for the entrance to the Suez Canal in 1867, based on an École des Beaux-Arts-inspired reverence for colossal art of the Classic Era, the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi (1834-1904) received a commission from the government of France to create a statue to be donated to the United State in honour of the 1876 centenary of the American Revolution. Bartholdi's enormous lighthouse, based on a triumphal Roman sculpture of Liberta, was never constructed, but the Statue of Liberty, which he had modelled as early as 1870, carries over many elements of his scheme for that project, though in the end she cannot have much resembled his original anthropomorphic vision of a lighthouse: for she is depicted in motion, with her torch held high as though lighting her own path forward. The construction of the full-size statue, 150 feet high, progressed slowly and in stages over the next fifteen years, during which period Bartholdi patented his design in America, and commissioned the Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) engineering firm to design the internal framework over which the copper sheeting (350 individual pieces previously hammered by hand over moulds) would be fastened. The vast head and torch-bearing arm were separately shown in expositions during the late 1870s to surreal effect, and the entire work was given a trial assembly in Paris in 1884; the disassembled Statue of Liberty arrived in America in 1885, before its pedestal had been fully constructed; it was eventually re-erected and dedicated on 28 October 1886, as prefigured in Jules Verne's Near Future tale Robur the Conqueror (9 June-18 August 1886 Journal des Débats politiques et littéraire; 1886), where it has become a universally recognized metonym for New York. Brown when new, by 1906 it had become green through oxidation, and so remains. The statue was instantly proclaimed as demonstrating a vision of America as land of freedom and opportunity, though in Edward Moran's 1886 painting of the unveiling she looks more like a Roman goddess than a demotic Liberty; she seemed both to welcome immigrants and (as an immigrant herself) to chaperone them into the inner harbour of New York, where most new arrivals to America continued to disembark for decades after 1886.

But so prominent and so thrusting an Icon was never likely only to trigger thoughts of triumph at the end of the Gilded Age in America, a time of huge volatility for a people which feared Decadence while glorying (see Edisonade) in unfettered change and growth. Within a very few years the Statue of Liberty began, therefore, to be understood in the imaginations of writers and artists as a symbol not only of triumph but of Ozymandian pride; as a figure simultaneously positive and negative, two-faced, polysemous, her torch not only a beacon but a Dreadful Warning (which is the natural function of a lighthouse), a multifarious iconicity thoroughly unpacked in Miss Liberty?: 71 Collages (graph 1986) by John Digby (1938-    ), each collage fixing the Statue into a different, surrealized scene, where her blank-faced instantiation of the meaning of her name is variously ironized. The actual expression on her face is in fact unsmiling, indeed minatory, a characteristic frequently emphasized in sf Illustrations – sf magazine covers featuring her dark vatic gaze include those for the December 1941 Astounding Science-Fiction, by Reginald Hubert Rogers; the April-September 1953 Fantastic Universe by Alex Schomburg; the February 1964 Amazing, for which Schomburg redid his 1953 effort – in both versions she is half-buried in desert sands; and the December 1966 F&SF, by Howard Purcell, the haunted grimness of which is rendered subtly more distressing because the illustration was reversed in error, to Kafkaesque effect. Avram Davidson's strangely told "Bumberboom", in the same issue, was written to accompany the image; whether he worked from the reversed image is not known. Franz Kafka himself uncannily adumbrates the Statue's iconographic complexity in the first paragraph of Amerika (written 1911-1914; 1927), where Liberty is seen bearing a sword, an image almost certainly independently conceived by James Huneker (1857-1921) in his fantastical Painted Veils (1920), where the Statue's torch is described as "in reality a threatening club", and by Henry Roth (1906-1995) in Call It Sleep (1934), where it is seen as "the blackened hilt of a broken sword" (Roth, who was of German ancestry, may possibly have read Amerika). And in W J Turner's Miss America (1930 chap) she is presented as something of a roisterer. Usually, however, Liberty is seen as the victim or emblem of the passage of history, rather than as a figure somehow responsible for America's fall into time.

Probably inspired by the familiar British New Zealander trope, the first use of Liberty as a victim and/or contemplator of a ruined New York seems to have occurred only a few years after her erection, in the text and illustrations for The Last American (1889 chap; exp 1902) by J A Mitchell. As a triumphant demonstration of manned flight, Wilbur Wright piloted a biplane around the Statue on 29 September 1909 during the annual Hudson-Fulton Celebration, cheered on by thousands of spectators; it was the first time an American had flown over water. Her torch was symbolically shattered in George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn (book form 1914). The painter Harrison Cady (1877-1970), best known for illustrating over half a century thousands of children's stories by Thornton W Burgess (1874-1965), executed a diptych in 1916 portraying the Statue before and after she has been savagely battered, along with her metropolis, almost certainly as an imagined result of World War One. The most famous single use of the Statue may be the Liberty Bond poster by Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) executed in 1917 for the 1918 drive, in which she can be seen raising her torch defiantly above the burning city while a German air flotilla (see Pax Aeronautica) continues to bomb the harbour. When Donald Duck awakens from a nightmare of entrapment on a Nazi assembly line in the Walt Disney cartoon short Der Fuehrer's Face (1942 8 minutes), he ardently kisses the model of the liberty-bestowing Statue lit by sunlight through his bedroom window. Two opposing cultures occupy the remnants of Manhattan in Jack Bechdolt's Ruined Earth tale, The Torch (24 January-21 February 1920 Argosy Weekly; 1948): the authoritarian Towermen in the shards of skyscrapers; and the freedom-loving folk who occupy the Island of the Statue. Algis Budrys's Post-Holocaust "Thing" (March 1955 Fantastic Universe as Ivan Janvier) opens with the now dangerously radioactive Statue being cut up for disposal at sea. A character in Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2011) satirically (see Satire) rewrites her protector role when he thinks of her "suppurating masses yearning to eat" (in the frame of this tale, the masses are in fact literal Zombies).

As a visualizable image, Liberty is of course instantly recognizable, for instance as a hollow giant ruined shell known as "Libby" in Robert Nathan's The Weans (November 1956 Harper's Magazine as "Digging the Weans"; much exp 1960 chap). Even her not-yet-assembled hand, in which the protagonists of Jack Finney's Time and Again (1970) take refuge in the early 1880s, conveys a shock of recognition, perhaps intensified because her hand is a metonym of the full Statue, which is in turn a meaning-drenched metonym for New York itself; the final shot of the film Planet of the Apes (1968), with the Statue half-buried in sand, may be the best-known of several similar uses of Liberty (see above) to embody the Ruins and Futurity topos; in 2012: Ice Age (2011), the Statue also comes into play at the end, though this time the protagonists of the film, by hiding inside her, save themselves from a fast-approaching glacier. In Matthew Buchholz's Alternate Histories of the World (graph coll 2013), she is a gift from Mars, officially known as "Emperor Krgyyx Threatening the World". There are many further examples cited in this encyclopedia of the Statue of Liberty in her dread double role: as chaperone of the high hopes of our culture; and as contemplator of their ruin. [JC]

see also: Iconoclasm.

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