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The Gargantuan Arm


ISSUE:  Spring 2020

 

Let us remember liberty was not popular,
six years it took Laboulaye to convince
Bartholdi a gigantic statue was 
what New York harbor needed. Eleven
years later the Frenchman 
arrived in Philadelphia with her gargantuan arm. 
Forty-two-feet high, two tons of torch.
Displayed at the peak of America’s backward
slide into emancipation, it looks now 
like a statue sunk in sand. So
were its finances. Weeks later
Joseph Reed was dragged from
his cell in Nashville, Tennessee, and
hung from a suspension bridge by
an angry mob. “Hardly had Reed
been lodged in jail before the subject
of lynching him became the subject of general
discussion,” the Memphis Daily
Appeal reported.

Its fundraising tour in Philadelphia
complete, Bartholdi and crew dismantled 
the appendage, packed it into 
crates, and loaded her on a train to New York City. 
For six years the arm sat in Madison Square Park 
as Harper’s railed against Americans’ 
having to pay for its pedestal. Raising pennies. 
Coins. You could climb up inside of Liberty, it
was grand, a view. But not the person taking
your ticket. People loved it. Workers
on the project back in France got married,
had children, died. Kipling came
to Paris in 1878 when Bartholdi showed
the head and was told he’d peered
through the eyes of Liberty herself. That 
same year Michael Green was dragged
from his cell in Upper Marlboro, Maryland,
a noose thrown round his neck, and his
body raised fifteen feet from the ground. It
was left there until the following morning.

In June of 1884, an American 
diplomat in Paris hosted an opulent 
banquet to celebrate the statue’s
completion, all of Parisian
society there in clothes pressed
and washed by others. Black servants
moving through the room swiftly.
Did any of the guests regard the arms 
that swept over their heads, to whisk 
away the china and cutlery
before a new course arrived? Did they
marvel at the strength of a human-sized
arm that can carry a tray weighing thirty or
forty pounds and remain unseen?
Not spill a drop of wine or sweat? 
And did any of the men waitering that
night pause for a cigarette, or
stand outside looking in at the glass 
banquet hall, with its crystal 
chandelier and its small-scale
model of Liberty and know it 
was not for him?

 

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