Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty
by Francesca Lidia Viano
Harvard University Press, 2018
When the French liner Péreire pulled into New York Harbor in the Spring of 1871, it was greeted with a frumpy, dismal sight. The harbor was filled with a chaotic-seeming rag-tag assemblage of vessels; the sluggish water was muddy brown; and dockyards of Staten Island and Brooklyn fronted clumps of flat-roofed shacks with innumerable chimneys threading smoke into the low-hanging sky. Arrival of newcomers seemed almost inadvertent; there was no sense of welcome or even apprehension.
One of passengers on board the Péreire drew a hasty but accurate sketch he would later amend. He noticed little star-shaped Bedloe’s Island sitting opposite Manhattan and observed that the location “longed” for a statute of some kind.
That passenger’s name was Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, and he had just the statue in mind for the spot. For years he’d been dreaming of it: a massive figure that would stand at the gateway of America (incoming shipping to the wharves of Manhattan would have to pass it, and its sheer size would make it visible even to local shipping bound elsewhere), facing southeast and symbolizing the enduring friendship between France and the United States.
The statue would eventually be Liberty Enlightening the World (La Liberté éclairant le monde), given to the city of New York in 1884 and the brooding subject of Francesca Lidia Viano’s intensely thought-provoking new book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty. Viano is a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, and her book immediately takes a radical departure from the kind of anodyne, uplifting accounts of the statue’s origins that are conveyed to the 3 million or so visitors who come to what is now Liberty Island every year to gawk at a French masterpiece that has become an American icon.
It’s safe to assume that although those visitors stand in awe of the statue - it weighs more than 200 tons, stands 151 feet tall (not including its enormous base), and is genuinely awe-inspiring even to jaded souls who’ve visited it many times - many of them don’t really think about it all that deeply. This is understandable; the statue has become a part of the landscape, a visual shorthand for the country, as completely familiar as the sunrise or any other incredible thing we see every day.
It’s only when you think about it that you start realizing how strange it is, and that strangeness, its genesis, ideological underpinning, and ultimate expression, is at the heart of Viano’s book. Lady Liberty is striding forward (stand at the rear of the statue and look up and you can clearly see one of her sandaled feet is upturned, caught in the moment of walking), not standing in welcome, and although the tablet she’s holding bears the carved date of the Declaration of Independence, her face is downright grim. This is, as Viano puts it, “a gigantic exercise in grotesque art” … before adding, in the baroque phraseology to which the book resorts with delightful frequency, “shining like the Luciferian morning star against the tar-black night.”
Obviously, Sentinel is designed to make readers just a bit uncomfortable about this particular incredible thing. Viano’s account begins not with a stirring celebration of Franco-American relations but with the story of the Trojan Horse, ominously and perhaps fittingly, since Viano claims that Bartholdi’s “advisor and mentor” Édouard Lefebvre de Laboulaye conceived La Liberté as both a tribute and a warning, “meant to threaten Americans themselves, who were aiming to expand their control over the areas of Central and South America that France considered its own.”
Colonialism is one among many extravagant strands Viano works into her engrossing story. The statue’s conceptual roots in orientalism are traced exhaustively, for instance, and the provenance of possible visual referents stretches across three continents and eight centuries; Viano seems to have tracked down every last free-standing statue Bartholdi or Laboulaye ever clapped eyes on. Likewise, revolutionary and cultish influences are enumerated in detail, as befits a statue so liberally decked out in Masonic imagery: “(the flame, the book, and the star on her head), half man and half woman, or at least androgynous, that would reveal its truth not just to members of the secret lodges but also the masses, as a sort of monumental incarnation of Orpheus and Eurydice.”
Readers will have to decide for themselves just what percentage of this is warranted speculation and what percentage is overreach, but the book’s 50 pages of close-packed Endnotes speak to the research underpinning Sentinel’s rich portrait of Bartholdi and Laboulaye themselves. They’re on every page of the book, reading voraciously, writing voluminously, imagining a subtext for their creation and then trying to sell that subtext to reluctant American backers. A refreshing chunk of the book’s latter half is dedicated to these very grubby real-world wranglings to get the statue made, to get it to America, to get its Bedloe’s Island base financed and built, and, on Bartholdi’s part, somehow to reconcile his statue’s “morgue-like traits” with the “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” of Emma Lazarus’s poem, now engraved inside the statue’s pedestal. And through it all, Viano is constantly aware of the bizarre contrasts of the whole endeavor.
“How did the people of America come to recognize their most cherished value - freedom - in this ambivalent icon of colonial domination?” she asks.  “How could they brandish her image as the custodian of America’s inner values and their symbol of engagement in so many military campaigns, which have often been inspired by a desire to fight evil, when only one of the statue’s two faces is benign?”
The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886 in a ceremony headed by President Grover Cleveland and closed to the general public. In the ensuing century, that general public has embraced it like no other work of art in the American experience with the possible exception of Mickey Mouse. With that embrace has come an inordinate amount of domestication, turning an objectively foreboding figure into a reassuring cartoon … the very stuff of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s nightmares, with what was meant to be a stern fraternal warning gradually transformed into a national cheerleader. Sentinel does as much as any book can to subert that complacency, to restore Bartholdi’s grim goddess some of her original mystery, and in the process it tells the story of Liberty’s birth with a probing complexity that’s a far better tribute to both the country of her origin and the country that welcomed her, the most prominent immigrant in the world.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.