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ENGLIT 0573: Literature of the Americas - Oakland Campus

A guide to assist with resources for assignments in ENGLIT 0573: Literature of the Americas

Statue of Liberty

In 1865 a moderate French republican leader, Édouard-Réné Lefebvre de Laboulaye, proposed that a monument to independence be built in America. Sculptor Frédéric-August Bartholdi was commissioned to design a sculpture as a “common work” to celebrate the countries' friendship, to be completed in 1876. The French would pay for the statue Liberty Enlightening the World, while the Americans would provide the location and the funds for the pedestal.

Americans were slow to contribute because some perceived the statue as a gift to New York alone, while others viewed the statue as belonging to the rich. Early newspaper accounts chastised Americans for failing to donate to the pedestal fund, yet they poked fun at Bartholdi's colossal plan. Americans simply could not determine what Liberty's purpose was, and long before it was erected in New York Harbor, it gained fame through its status as a curiosity, thanks especially to the mass media, in particular newspapers and advertising. An 1875 New York Times writer described the proposed statue as an eccentric addition to the landscape, envisioning Liberty as diving platform or lunch-counter. In an 1885 Puck cartoon Frederick B. Opper, noting the popular use of Liberty in American advertising (to hawk potted meat, thread, even a “hog remedy”), depicts Liberty as a billboard for sunglasses, top hats, and gin. The cartoon's caption: “Let the Advertising Agents Take Charge of the Bartholdi Business, and the Money Will Be Raised without Delay.”

In 1883 Emma Lazarus, participating in a fund-raising project, wrote her sonnet “ The New Colossus,” in which Liberty as “Mother of Exiles” cries, “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!” Efforts to raise funds drastically improved in 1885, when World newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer stepped in. His successful drive to raise the necessary pedestal funds helped establish Liberty as a symbol of America and Americans, rather than French-American friendship. He denounced the wealthy, who, he argued, were too closefisted to donate needed funds. Promising to print the names of all donors in the World, Pulitzer urged the working class and immigrants to participate and take emotional and political ownership of the statue. After only five months the fund-raising was complete, as was the Americanization of the statue. The statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886, although a plaque bearing Lazarus's famous words was not placed in the base of the pedestal until 1903.

Liberty owes part of its success as a work of public sculpture that has had fluid meanings for Americans for more than one hundred years to the formal aspects of the statue: it is an allegorical, figural work of art with relatively abstract, generalized qualities. The statue lacks attire that would fix it clearly in any given period; the classical drapery suggests antiquity and, curiously, timelessness. Liberty's countenance is also absent of fashionable features of the time, although Bartholdi himself declared that the “ classicizing mask” was inspired by his mother's face. The size, photogenic harbor setting, femaleness, tiara, and classical theme and dress make it easy to parody the Statue of Liberty for commercial, comic, or political ends. Liberty's image has also been manipulated during somber times: it exhorted Americans to buy war bonds in World War I, and its lamp was darkened during World War II. The Statue of Liberty's 1986 centennial coincided with President Ronald Reagan's heightening of the cold war with Russia, when fund-raising appeals for the statue's renovation echoed Reagan's calls for the rebirth of the American spirit, yet produced public denunciations about the “ commercialization” of Liberty.

It took time for the American mass media, hand-in-hand with the experience of immigrants, to develop widely agreed-on meanings (for example, Liberty as “Mother of Exiles,” symbol of individual opportunity and “the American Dream”). During the latter part of the twentieth century, some people ironically feared these meanings were being desecrated because of the power of a highly mediated culture's ability to select meanings for the “profane” purpose of selling consumer goods and services. Ultimately, public debates over Liberty's meaning focus on issues of power (Who owns it?) and control (Who speaks for it, and for whom does it speak?).

Evertz, K. (2010). Statue of liberty. In Simon J. Bronner and John Haddad (Eds.), Encyclopedia of American studies. Retrieved from Credo Reference database.

Examples of Re-Imaginings