Topping the Dome by Richard Novak
Early American History, Creative nonfiction
Create Space, this edition, 2011
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From the publisher:
2013 will be the 150th anniversary of topping the Capitol Dome in Washington with the sculpture of Freedom by Thomas Crawford. A picture of the Capitol Dome is second only to the Flag as America's most iconic image and can be seen daily as a segue into news from Washington. This is the tragic story of the creator and creation of the sculpture Freedom.
In 1835, Thomas Crawford leaves America to study sculpture in Rome under the world's premier sculptor. His career takes him back and forth between the ancient Capitol of Rome and the new Capitol of America, Washington, D.C. Art and politics collide as his patrons in America struggle to have his work accepted by a Congress bitterly divided over the issue of slavery. Crawford would eventually create more sculpture for the Capitol than any other sculptor. With the country at war, Abraham Lincoln refuses to halt the construction of the Capitol, and Crawford's greatest work, the statue of Freedom, is placed on the Capitol Dome in the midst of the Civil War, December 2, 1863. In this true story, three other men, Charles Sumner, a staunch abolitionist, Senator, and ideologue, Clark Mills, a self-taught sculptor and opportunist, and the supervisor of construction of the Capitol, Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, an autocratic achiever, play major roles in this confrontation between art and politics and the success of Thomas Crawford. Their careers, in their own way, mirror Crawford's during this tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War.
Creative non-fiction is always tricky, especially when recreating conversation, dialog, and setting. Novak has done a more than credible job of telling the events of crowing America with a dome on the Capitol building. It was a long road of showing American pride in our early national history. From ordering a sculpture, Freedom, to finding the perfect person to create the "crowning achievement" to garnering the funds to cover the cost, readers of American history will find much to appreciate in this detailed and highly documented story.
A nearly thirty-year journey, Topping the Dome focuses on the sculptor, Thomas Crawford, and his ally in government, Charles Sumner, and their friendship and efforts to keep the America they loved from crumbling into ruin during the buildup to the Civil War.
Novak, a sculptor, history buff, world traveler, and former medical school professor, has put together a fine book. Included are photographs of the people and events, and a truly astonishing bibliography. Parts of original letters back up the narrative. Novak's personal experience as a sculptor adds to the story in a way someone who didn't understand the process could never have achieved. Artists also will find this story of creating a gem of national pride intriguing.
About the author: Richard F. Novak, a sculptor for 40 years, has works in both public spaces and private collections. This work is the culmination of two years research. My original intent was to tell the story from the perspective of a sculptor. However, as I moved through the extensive research material available, the era and the fascinating men and women who touched on his life shaped an intriguing story which I felt must be included with Crawford's. Rather than present the story as another encyclopedic description of Crawford's achievements, I decided to bring these amazing characters to life in the genre of an historical novel. The dialogue is, of course, fictional, but the story is based on the actual events as they unfolded from 1835 to 1863. For more see toppingthedome.com.