Posts Tagged ‘ Charles Dickens ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 3)

The Childish Longing for Protection and Belonging

There was only knowing that she must find somebody, anybody,
that she could join with to go away. For now she admitted
she was too scared to go into the world alone.
The Member of the Wedding

In her unfinished autobiography McCullers tells of an incident in June 1940 shortly after she had moved to New York with the money that Houghton Mifflin paid her for the publication of her story “The Heart” (and anticipating payment for her soon-to-be-published first novel). She had long been desperate to move out of the squalid one-family house she and her husband Reeves McCullers shared with eight other people in Charlotte. But their marriage was already in such a state that when the good news came, instead of going together, Reeves accepted an invitation to sail with a friend to Nantucket, while Carson rode to New York alone on a bus. She took lodging in a cheap boarding house on the West Side and was still there when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published on June 4.

That month her editor at Houghton Mifflin telegrammed her an invitation to lunch at the Bedford Hotel. Pleased to finally enjoy a social occasion she bought a new dress just for the meeting. As it happened, staying at the same hotel was Erika Mann (Thomas Mann’s eldest daughter, to whom McCullers had written requesting an interview in connection with a story she planned about a Jew from Germany). After lunch, while McCullers was in Mann’s room, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach entered. McCullers neither knew the Swiss heiress and literary dilettante, nor was she expecting her. But that day would begin an intense (but not sexual, at least not consummated, according to McCullers) short-term intimacy between the southern precocious naif in a failing marriage and the liberated, world-traveling gay sophisticate who had been addicted to morphine since she was 18. The relationship would survive Reeves’s abusive jealousy, Carson’s excessive dependence, Annemarie’s commitments to asylum’s and suicide attempt and even the latter’s escape first to Africa and then to Switzerland. (Reflections in a Golden Eye is dedicated to Clarac-Schwarzenbach, and Clarac-Schwarzenbach was planning to translate it.) Switzerland is where she died, however, in a bicycle accident on a mountainside. But what is important for this discussion is not the subsecquent relationship, but simply is the very moment the two met. McCullers describes it as something like an emotional singularity. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life, beautiful, blonde, with straight short hair. There was a look of suffering on her face that I could not define.” She immediately thought of Prince Myshkin’s experience meeting Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—which brought him a sensation of “terror, pity and love.”1

A moment like that, filled with the agitation of intense emotional excitement together with the vague suspicion of its potential for chaos and ruin, is at the heart of McCullers’s fourth novel.

[Part 1 of this series is found here; Part 2 can be read here.]

The Member of the Wedding (1946)

19442 was a disruptive year for 12-year-old Frankie (Frances) Addams. Her best friend had moved away to Florida. Her slightly older friends would not let her join the club they formed. “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.” She was growing at an alarming rate. And she had become a criminal after she stole a three-way knife from the Sears and Roebuck. But that was not all. She took her father’s pistol and shot it in an empty lot. She committed a “secret sin” with Barney MacKean in his parents’ garage, and she hated him for it and wanted to kill him. These things made her afraid, first of the law, and then of her father, and then of not belonging to anything. The summer was lonesome and hot. “Every day she wanted more and more to leave the town to light out for South America or Hollywood or New York City. But although she packed her suitcase many times, she could never decide on which of these places she might go, or how she would get there by herself.” So she spent her time hanging around the kitchen and being “too mean to live.”

We learn all these things from the narrator, who tells them in desultory manner, merely as background to what takes place mainly during a three-day period in August and its aftermath seen on one afternoon three months later. And mostly what takes place happens around a cheap table in a kitchen whose walls are marred by the drawings of children and inside one of those walls we occasionally hear the scratchings of a rat.

At this table are always the same three characters. In addition to Frankie, there is the African-American cook/housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown, and Frankie’s six-year-old cousin, John Henry West. This trio is very similar to one we encountered in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One of the five main characters in McCullers’s first novel, 14-year-old Mick Kelly, occasionally is found in the kitchen with her younger brother, George (“Bubber”) Kelly, and the black cook, Portia Copeland. Mick and Frankie, though two years apart in age, are somewhat alike. Both have some creative inclinations: Mick is obsessed with music; Frankie, though she gave it up that summer, used to write “shows” that were performed under a tree outside. (Carson McCullers herself, when she was a child in Georgia, studied piano and wrote plays that her siblings performed for the family.) Both had unpleasant first sexual encounters (although Frankie reacted much more violently than Mick). Both are out-of-sorts, trying to figure out how they fit into the world. Both long to travel north, to see snow, and to become famous and important. Bubber Kelly and John Henry both look up to the young protagonists, and while they both play important roles in the plot at the end, their roles before then are quite limited, not much more than accessories. The two cooks are also very similar. Both are something like a mother or older sister substitute. In the first novel Mick’s mother is too busy running the boarding house to have much interaction with her and her older sisters ignore her; in the second Frankie’s mother had died in childbirth and Frankie is an only child. Both cooks have experience with marriage. Portia is currently married to Honeyboy, whose involvement in the plot is so limited that we never know his last name. Berenice has been married four times; the first time to a loving and respectful man, Ludie Freeman, who treated her well. He once bought her a fox fur stole, which she still had. He took her to Cincinnati where they saw snow and where they lived for nine months. Ludie made a decent living there as a brick mason. (Note his name and the place Berenice keeps returning to in her memories. Frankie is not the only one who is confined in Georgia.) The rest of Berenice’s husbands were one worse than the other, as she puts it. The last one put out her eye, and now she wears an odd blue glass eye. In both cases the cooks provide the conservative, common sense, “adult” point of view. Portia is more grounded in mainstream religion (the gospel of submission as her father sees it). Berenice relies on known sayings to guide her life, and she is less mature and accepting than Portia. She is often combative and frequently butts heads with Frankie. The two also spend Sunday evenings dressed in their finest, promenading about town with two men: in Portia’s case her husband Honeyboy and her brother; in Berenice’s her gentleman caller, T.T. Williams (the owner of a restaurant but “he and me is just good friends,” Berenice says), and her brother Honey. In both cases the brother becomess caught up in the racist legal system.

The points of comparison are true but largely irrelevant because The Member of the Wedding is not a narrative in the way The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is but rather, in essence, something like a philosophic dialogue. But unlike, say, Hume or Berkeley, the dialogue is not built on a scaffold of intellectual steps. Nor is it even like the overheated set piece dialogues throughout Dostoevsky’s major novels. At times it reaches for Buber’s idea that dialogue confers meaning by uniting the participants into one,3 but at others it descends to talking over each other’s head as in Chekhov’s plays or even into outright outbursts or altercations. MacDowell describes this dialogues thus:

“When Frankie and Berenice talk philosophically and with deep emotion, one sometimes hears dynamic dialogue as the women clash with each other and alternately reveal the anger and the tenderness they feel for each other. More often, however, one hears a rising antiphony in which one woman speaks, the other speaks in a contrasting tone, and finally the two join to achieve unified utterance, sometimes revealing a deep accord, sometimes a frustrating inability to communicate. In these antiphonal scenes, the two women do not necessarily speak to each other or to John Henry. Rather each speaks aloud to herself or to a vaguely conceived and undefined audience, which may or may not include he other two people present.”4

McCullers herself described the contributions of the three participants as “fugue-like parts.”5  (She was discussing the work as it had been translated by her into a play that had a long run on Broadway, but the approach to the dialogue was the same.) By that I think she meant that, as with a fugue, the two (and sometimes three) voices sometimes create a harmony, sometimes are heard in unison, frequently produce counterpoint and at some points create a cacaphony. Where the metaphor fails, however, is that the two (or more) statements made by the voices in a musical fugue are essentially the same (with certain changes permitted by the rules of fugal writing) simply begun at different times. So in a fugue the effects created by the different voices are inherent in the statement itself when played against different parts of itself. But that’s not how the dialogue worked in this novel (or the later play).

The points of view of Frankie and Berenice are diametrically opposite. Most of the attention of the story is on Frankie so the novel is often described as being “about” alienation, specifically adolescent alienation. While it is certainly true that Frankie is out-of-sorts and that she is constantly brooding about how she doesn’t belong or is unconnected to the world, Berenice has the opposite complaint. She believes she is fixed by the racist structure of society, trapped in her position and cares and wishing only to “burst free.” She doesn’t reveal this to Frankie at first, but it informs all of her advice to her and also all of her criticisms and disparagements of her. But until the last Friday in August, the two just talked past each other “their voices saw against each other, saying the same words,” as this conversation when Frankie’s cat ran away:

“‘If only I just knew where he has gone.’

“‘Quit worrying yourself about that old alley cat. I done told you he ain’t coming back.’

“‘Charles is not alley He is almost pure Persian.’

“‘Persian as I is,’ Bernice would say. ‘You seen the last of that old tomcat. He gone off to hunt a friend.’

“‘To hunt a friend?’

“‘Why, certainy. He roamed off to find himself a lady-friend.’

“‘You really think so?’

“‘Naturally.’

“‘Well, why don’t he bring his friend home with him. He ought to know I would be only too glad to have a whole family of cats.’

“‘You seen the last of that old alley cat.’

“‘If only I just knew where he is gone.'”

And then on that last Friday6 in August that ends Frankie’s “scared Spring” and her “green and crazy summer,” Frankie’s brother, Jasper, who had been serving in  the U.S. armed forces in Alaska, came home on leave and brought with him his fiancée, Janice, who lived in Winter Hill, 100 miles away. They stayed for lunch, brought Frankie’s father a bottle of liquor and Frankie a china doll, invited the two to the wedding to be held on Sunday in Winter Hill and then returned by train. Frankie had not expected much (except a present from Alaska) when she heard they were coming, but when she saw them, she was transfixed. As she was coming into the living room she first was startled by the quiet, for Jarvis had turned off the radio in the kitchen which had been playing all summer, night and day, providing a background noise of sweet jazz and war news that everyone had grown accustomed to. When she saw the betrotheds, however, she received another, bigger surprise: “She stood in the doorway, coming from the hall, and the first sight of her brother and the bride had shocked her heart. Together they made in her this feeling that she could not name. But it was like the feelings of the spring, only more sudden and more sharp. There was the same tightness and in the same queer way she was afraid.” It was the same emotion that McCullers herself describes erupted in her when she met Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach.7 This moment would animate the next two days with meaning and terror.

After the couple left to return to Winter Hill, Frankie would brood about the encounter. As the trio played cards at the kitchen table, Frankie repeatedly asked Berenice for her impressions of the couple and her conduct. Berenice at first teased her sarcastically by saying she was “jealous” of her brother. But Frankie could not let it go. All afternoon she returned to the subject until Berenice, out frustration or spite, taunted her by repeatedly saying “Frankie got a crush! Frankie got a crush! … On the Wedd-ing!” Unable to take the mockery Frankie picked up a kitchen knife, much alarming Berenice, but she again taunted Frankie into throwing it. “The empty house seemed to be waiting. And then there was the knife whistle in the air and the sound the blade made when it struck. The knife hit the middle of the stairway door and shivered there. She watched the knife until it did not shiver any longer.” The act calmed Frankie, but Berenice could not let the hostility end. “You are not fit to live in a house.” And here Frankie revealed a resolve instantaneously formed at that moment by instinct. “I won’t be living in this one much longer.” Berenice again scoffed at her, asking where she was going. Frankie replied with a sudden resolve: “I’m going to Winter Hill. I’m going to the wedding. And I swear to Jesus by my two eyes I’m never coming back her any more.” The seriousness, and suddenness, of this resolve, is emphatic.

“She had not been sure that she would throw the knife until it struck and shivered on the stairway door. And she had not known that she would say these words until already they were spoken. The swear was like the sudden knife; she felt it strike in her and tremble. Then when the words were quiet, she said again:

“‘After the wedding I’m not coming back.'”

One of the remarkable talents of McCullers is her ability to show the inner world of a character by his actions. Not simply by a single act but by a pattern or sequence or repeating motif. What her characters think is usually revealed, even to them, in what they do. (This insight is consistent with, as I understand them, current neurological findings.) This is not an adolescent trait, but rather she applies it to all alike. It is perhaps one reason that some critics have called her work “clinical” or “cold” or her characters “freaks” or “unrealistic.” Like everyone else book reviewers and literary critics react to challenges by denying their validity.

Once Frankie articulates the way she intends to resolve the conflict that has been building within her, she experiences great relief. She now understands “connectedness.” The same sense of belonging that she sees others have, she now finds in her connection to her brother’s marriage. The betrotheds are, as she puts it, “the we of me.”  When she joins the marriage she will be complete. The thought grew within her all night, even after Berenice left, until it became a twin certainty within her—a certainty that it would happen and a certain that it was meant to happen. “At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together. And finally, after the sacred spring and the crazy summer, she was no more afraid.”

Like all who discover the thing that truly completes them (whether it is god or ideology or movements or a lover or the Truth), Frankie became an immediate enthusiast. And all enthusiasts become evangelists.8 So Saturday, the day before the wedding, Frankie ventured into the town, not circumspect and quiet like she used to, but with a new confidence and, more importantly, a desire to tell everyone of her new determination. And like many who have begun a new life after a revelation, Frankie took on a new name. She now called herself F. Jasmine, so that she could share the Ja- of Jarvis and Janis. Everything about her and everything around her was new.

Her day began with her father at breakfast. She no longer felt the resentment that began last spring; she even felt tenderness towards him, for she realized he would be lonely without her. Outside, the children foolishly trying to dig a swimming pool (whom she no longer led during this year of dissatisfaction) awakened in her a sense of nostalgia, as did the scattered evidences of her childhood which she regarded with the eye of one who would never see them again. When she reached town, her view of the place was not now colored by her desperate desire to escape. Instead, as though she were a traveller who stopped in this one town for only a day, she took in everything with much interest. She was especially attracted to the people. She looked at them directly in their eyes. And with everyone she felt a “connection.” She wanted to tell each of them how she was about to be a member of the wedding. And she went looking for people to tell, from the Portuguese manager of the Blue Moon (the seedy bar/flophouse that catered mostly to the servicemen from the army base nine miles outside of town) to a man operating a tractor as part of a crew laying tar on a road, who she ran along side of, cupping her hand around her mouth ro amplify her voice over the noise of the tractor. No one disputed her claims. Indeed, no one seemed to have much of a response at all. All of this F. Jasmine took as confirmation of her membership and the proof of her connection.

By mid-day she circled back to her father’s shop near the Blue Moon Café, where she learned that John Henry’s great-uncle Charles had died. Since his death had nothing to do with the wedding (he was not a blood relation of her or her father), she gave it no thought beyond expressing the pity of it. More importantly, she got permission from her father to buy a wedding outfit, although it was at the local clothing store where he had a credit line. Having to buy a wedding dress at a cheap local store annoyed her, but it was a minor annoyance all things considered.

On leaving her father’s shop, F. Jasmine heard the sounds of the monkey man whom she had not seen all summer. She went to find him for it would be her last visit with the man and his darling monkey, both of whom she had grown fond of over the years. But when she located him, a soldier was quarreling with him and shoving a fist full of money his way. He was evidently trying to buy the monkey, who was cowering on the ground away from both. F.. Jasmine came closer, and the monkey quickly climbed up her and perched on her shoulder where the monkey man was able to snatch him and disappear, leaving F. Jasmine alone with the soldier. After an awkward exchange the drunken soldier led the bewildered but intrigued 12-year-old back to the Blue Moon Café, where he bought her a beer and persuaded her to return at nine that night so that they could go dancing. On the way home, after buying her wedding dress, F. Jasmine passed an alley. Out of the corner of her eye she glanced a “half-seen thing”—an apparition of her brother and his fiancée. It was an alarmingly real image, so much so that she had to slowly turn around to look again, even though she knew that the two were 100 miles away. But when she brought herself to look, she saw nothing except two “colored boys,” one with his arm on the other’s shoulder. It surprised her, and she contemplated it the whole way home.

Once home, John Henry and Berenice were in the kitchen and informed her they also would be attending the wedding because John Henry’s parents had to make arrangements for Uncle Charles’s funeral. That his new arrangement might encroach upon F. Jasmine’s wedding caused her to display her annoyance, which set off another round of hostile exchanges. Berenice grilled her about her morning, then belittled her not only for her plans but mostly for telling strangers about them. F. Jasmine had wanted to tell Berenice about the soldier, but each time she was about to begin, something warned her off. The exchange reached a climax when Berenice demanded to know what she would do if the couple refused her. She would kill herself, F. Jasmine said defiantly, with her father’s pistol.

At dinner the conversation took on a different tone. Berenice began something like an ode to love, or at least the virtues of having a beau. F. Jasmine for the first time listened to such a talk. Previously she had never believed in love. But she balked when Berenice turned the conversation to F. Jasmine having a beau, particularly Barney MacKean. But with fits and starts, interrupted by the unresolved scales of a piano tuner in the distance, they eventually transcended the particular and began talking not only about universals but also to each other. Berenice told of her vision for a better world—one where there were no colored race, where everyone was the same and one family; a world where there was no war, no bodies hanging from trees and no armies of young people leaving in uniforms; and no hunger. “No killed Jews and no hurt colored people. No war and no hunger in the world. And finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.” F. Jasmine and John Henry added their fine tuning. Then F. Jasmine told of her apparition which turned out to be two boys in an alley. This launched Berenice into a narrative of how each of her husbands was introduced by a similar apparition out of the corner of her eye, like Frankie’s. What she wanted Frankie to learn was that this all came from inside: “I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.” F. Jasmine lingered in the doorway, because she knew this would be the last conversation they would in the kitchen, or perhaps anywhere. Yet she could not express what troubled her and what her aspirations were. Instead, she began marching about and speaking in a jumbled way, “but they were the wrong words, not what she had meant to say.” Berenice grabbed her and pulled her onto her lap and then began the last “queer conversation”:

“We are all of us somehow caught. We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and burst free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.”

She explained how she, as a black woman, was especially trapped. She was caught like everyone else and “they down drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people.” But the problem is universal:

“The point is that we all caught. And we try in one way or another to widen ourself free. For instance, me and Ludie. When I was with Ludie, I didn’t feel so caught. But then Ludie died. We go around trying one thing or another, but we caught anyhow.”

The conversation made F. Jasmine “almost afraid.” John Henry needed comfort as well and tried to hang onto Berenice from the back of the chair. F. Jasmine saod that when she looked at people she saw them “loose” and while that is almost the opposite of “caught,” she said they meant the same thing. “I mean you don’t see what joins them up together.” She agreed with Berenice that there was birth and death, but “what is it all about? People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up. There’s bound to be some sort of reason and connection. Yet somehow I can’t seem to name it. I don’t know.” There was silence for a few moments. Then F. Jasmine uttered what was on her mind while they were all close together, touching, for the very last time: “Here we are—right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. and it will never come again. Never in all the world.” And a moment later all three began to cry.

And that was the last of their kitchen conversations.

The final fifth of the book follows the transformation from F. Jasmine to Frances during the approximately 30 hours from Saturday evening to early Monday morning with a final view of the result one afternoon in October. Unlike the rest of the novel, this is not an exploration of her interior monologue, for she does not engage in introspective thoughts. Since she has finally begun to act, she is forced to make decisions not based on rational plans, but rather by improvisation, because she never considered things realistically, never considered what others might do or thing, never doubted for a moment that her impulsive desire would come to fruition and solve all the unresolved longings and conflicts that buffeted her.

The night began with a trip to Sugarville, where Berenice’s mother, Big Mama, and her brother, Honey, lived. F. Jasmine would ask for Big Mama to tell her fortune by reading her palm. John Henry tagged along, wearing one of the costumes F. Jasmine had given him (because she would no longer need childish things). They passed the penitentiary, and John Henry heckled a prisoner looking out from behind his barred window. When they arrived F. Jasmine made John Henry wait outdoors, while she heard the fortune she only half believed. Outside again they talked to Honey as he was on his was to Forks Falls and his own destiny. When F. Jasmine reached the town again, she made John Henry go home. But “as she watched him going away from her down the crowded street, she felt a hollow sorriness—he looked so babyish and pitiful in the costume.”

Then came her encounter with the soldier, which proved a formidable challenge to her self-reliance and left her terrified of the consequences. Then the next day brought the tedious bus ride to Winter Hill, the prelude to the wedding where she was treated as an inconsequential child, the wedding itself, which she finally ruined, the miserable bus ride home, and then the fulfillment of the threat, when she set off at night with her father’s pistol. It will end again at the Blue Moon.

These scenes contain a sense of terror and humiliation that often mark plot turns or character revelations in Dostoevsky, but McCullers employs none of the melodrama. Her writing is perfectly measured and expository. In fact, when something surprising takes place anywhere in the novel, the narrator will take pains to explain it or relate it to something more ordinary. We are not to take any of it as out of the ordinary, much less entertaining; it is all simply more scenes of the human comedy.

Three months later we see Berenice and Frances (as she now is) in the late afternoon. Everything has changed. The kitchen has been painted over, and the furniture, except for the kitchen, is gone, because Frances and her father are to move the next day. Berenice will not be going because she has decided to marry T.T. But there is another reason—Berenice has been inalterably changed. She has seen John Henry die in great agony from meningitis in the course of a week. She is haunted by the last thing she said to him that he understand: “Run along for I don’t have the patience to fool with you.” She said it because she had a headache, and John Henry said he had one too, but she thought he was simply imitating her.

Berenice helped the nurse with him every day, as he was dying, and she couldn’t bear it. “‘I don’t see why he has to suffer so,’ Berenice would say: and the word suffer was one she could not associate with John Henry, a word she shrank from as before an unknown hollow of the heart.” Around the same time Honey was arrested. He was now on a chain gang sentenced to eight years. And so Berenice became smaller, less assured. She was sitting in a chair wearing an old raveled sweater with her fox fur in her lap. Frances was busily making fancy sandwiches for her new friend, Mary Littlejohn. They met in the middle of October when the troubles with John Henry and Honey were going on. In fact, they went to the Fair the week that John Henry was in the midst of his ultimate agony. The two were now obsessed with art and poetry, and they planned to travel the world together when Frances was 16. “I am just mad about Michelangelo,” Frances would say. Frances suspected that Berenice did not like Mary, because she had long braided hair, because she was Catholic. So Frances used the words that were designed to hurt: “You could not possibly understand her. It’s not in you.” Berenice no longer challenged Frances.

And so we see how Frances has become, after the wedding (which she never spoke of again), and it is something of a surprise. What we have been through was not a Bildungsroman, however much we expected it to be. It fact Frankie Addams is one of the more unusual children in Western literature. Dickens established the customary way children were used in literature. They are essentially guileless, innocent receptacles who need nothing more than protection. They have only potential and are empty of the selfishness, cruelty and greediness which is only acquired later in life. They are, in short, the only representatives who truly constitute Rousseau’s man in the state of nature. This portrayal, especially if uniformly rendered, make children the perfect vehicle for exciting emotions of empathy from the reader. Even in Dostoevsky, children are almost always innocent, and so when an ultimate outrage is to be depicted, it is perpetrated on children (consider the crime in Stavrogin’s confession), or when the utter baseness of corruption is needed, it is a child who is corrupted (for example, Kolya). That is how McCullers treats John Henry. Entirely innocent, he seems to have no trace of cunning, duplicity or deceipt about him. He is unerringly loyal to Frankie. When she tells him that her former frineds had spread the rumor that she smelled bad, he hugged her and said, “You smell sweet. … Like a hundred flowers.” He seems to not resent the numerous insults, put downs or malice she hurls at him. He is an undemanding font of love.

McCullers uses this same ingrained presumption to reveal a truth in Frankie—that even a child is fundamentally selfish, indifferent to others and unfazed by the tragedies around him. Frankie’s dream of fulfillment is fundamentally self-absorbed and self-delusional. Those two aspects are what doom her plan.

And it is there that we see a hint that this behavior of Frankie is not simply a case of adolescent immaturity. There is one metaphor that recurs throughout the novel—that of moths and butterflies. These insects are of course the prime example of metamorphosis in nature. Each transform into an adult from a larva through a pupa stage. From the beginning we are teased with the prospect that the story will be transformative. Frankie seems to hope for it: “I wish I was somebody else except me.” The first time we see the insects, they are moths attracted by the lamp in Frankie’s room. John Henry says: “Those beautiful butterflies. They are trying to get in.” Frankie associates their plight with her own: “To me it is the irony of fate. The way they come here. Those moths could fly anywhere. Yet they keep hanging around the windows of this house.” After she writes the run-away note addressed to her father (which she signs “Sincerely yours”), the “green and white moths were nervous at the window screen and the night outside was queer.”

Butterflies are associated with adult skillfulness. Frankie notices her father’s hands (the hands of a jeweler) hover over tiny watches “as carefully as butterflies.” And Honey, who was an educated and articulate person, forced by racism beneath his station, was able to talk like an educated person, with lips “as light as butterflies.” But at other times, when weighed down with oppression, he would only talk “with a colored jumble that even his own family could not follow.”

But butterflies did not signify metamorphosis. They did not even associate themselves with the joy that John Henry saw in them, for the day of his death was “a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.” He gradually recedes in the mind of Frankie, until he is barely thought of except “occasionally at twilight time or when the special hush would come into the room.” Instead Frances’s search for “we-ness” is directed towards Mary Littlejohn and their planned trip around the world. Although the object has changed, Frances’s essential idea of what would complete her (partnership with another and escape from her present environs) remains the same.

It is worth pointing out here that McCullers does not solely rely on literary techniques like metaphors to create a juvenile or immature worldview. It is inherent in all the narrative. Not only does she have a superb ability to capture the manner of speech of the characters, including the children (without making them sound oddly foreign, as is often the case in Mark Twain’s stories). But she was also able to reveal the point of view in the voice of the narrator and the manner of narration (without having the narrator adopt the child’s voice). Descriptions of things visible is a perfect example. For example, when F. Jasmine thinks of the monkey man and his animal as she remembers him from past summers, the narrators describes him as follows:

“The old Frankie had always loved the monkey and the monkey-man. They resembled each other—they both had an anxious, questioning expression, as though they wondered every minute if what they did was wrong. The monkey, in fact, was nearly always wrong; after he danced to the organ tune, he was supposed to take off his darling little cap and pass it around to the audience, but likely as not he would get mixed up and bow and reach out his cap to the monkey-man, and not the audience. And the monkey-man would plead with him, and finally begin to chatter and fuss. When he would make as if to slap the monkey, the monkey would cringe down and chatter also—and they would look at each other with the same scared exasperation, their wrinkled faces very sad. After watching them a long time, the old Frankie fascinated, began to take on the same expression as she followed them around.”

The description manifests the kind of close attention that a child would have for the monkey and his keeper. By depicting the details of the monkey’s behavior that would most amuse a child it describes the viewer as much as what is being viewed.

Another example is the representation of what Frankie saw when she looked into the bedroom of the dying Uncle Charles:

“He looked like an old man carved in brown wood and covered with a sheet. Only his eyes had moved, and they were like blue jelly, and she had felt they might come out from the sockets and roll like blue wet jelly down his stiff face. She had stood in the doorway staring at him—then tiptoed away, afraid. They finally made out that he complained the sun shone the wrong way through the window, but that was not the thing that hurt him so. And it was death.”

In this case, the child focuses on the frightening aspect of the dying man’s appearance. An adult would more likely sympathize with the fate than a child. And for Frankie death really is simply something that appears in dreams to frighten her.

McCullers’s ability to convey something close to a non-idealized, but still sympatheic, view of childhood and adolescence is not simply a matter of autobiographical recollection. Although she did not create a large body of short stories, by the time she wrote The Member of the Wedding, she had written a handful that dealt with children. In each of them, McCullers has the child dealing with a problem of adult perplexity. And instead of treating the child as solely (or even largely) a receptacle for adult sympathy, she sees the problem through the child’s point of view, and by doing so she brings the adult reader into complete empathy with the child, even when the child is acting selfishly or immaturely. “Breath for the Sky” is an example. That story treats the condition of a child with a serious lung infection (possibly tuberculosis) who is about to be sent to a sanitarium 300 miles away. She struggles with her resentment of her family, who seem to be enjoying their lives despite her sickness, and her hatred for her nurse. “Wunderkind” tells of a 15-year-old girl who was once proclaimed a musical prodigy who has come to grips with the fact that she has been defeated in her quest to be a concert pianist. “The Haunted Boy” tells of a boy who having experienced the attempted suicide of his mother comes home to an unexpectedly empty house. His terror turns to fury when his mother returns unharmed. These stories treat children as agents fully capable of facing the crises before them and also responsible for their choices. It is this view of children that makes them fit subjects on their own for serious literature.

Frances in the end is also responsible for her choice, however much she fails to live up to our own expectations of how she should have acted. It is quite true that she has been given limited options in life, and that, like Mick Kelly, she will probably be forced to give up and expect the confined existence of a backward Georgia mill town. After all, Berenice, who in the ends proves capable of deep empathy and heroic efforts, ends up having to settle for a life below her expectations. Frances still pursues a dream that is inherently incapable of fulfillment, but to do so she ignores the suffering of Berenice and John Henry, the only two who showed her any real affectionate regard, despite her poor treatment of them.

So how does this all related to McCullers’s “One Big Idea” that we began this series with? By probing how this adolescent attempts to account for what seems an existential void at the center of life, McCullers makes several points. First, meaning is not the same thing as gratification of self-love. The latter can never be obtained or if once tasted is soon lost (as Berenice testifies). Second, a person does not achieve his “true purpose” at the expense of others. Finally, the more frequent metamorphosis is not one where a childish wish matures into a noble purpose but rather one where a person uses self-delusion to settle for what is convenient.

McCullers would only publish one more novel during her life and that would be 15 years after The Member of the Wedding. In the last post on this series, we’ll look at that novel and see what generalizations we can make about her fiction.

 Notes

1Carlos L. Dews (ed.), Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Auobiography of Carson McCullers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), p. 21.  To call this work “unfinished” gives the impression that it is at at stage of completion that it had yet to achieve. In fact, it is a collection of drafts of incidents without any organizing principle (not even chronological). Basic facts are omitted, and scenes that seem to describe specific incidents often cover longer periods collapsed by dropping details and sequences. It is frequently difficult to tell how one paragraph is supposed to relate to what precedes or follows it. It has none of the direct and simple eloquence that her published prose shows. In other words it is not particularly rewarding in its own right. It would have taken much more work to turn into something that could be published, and the editor of this edition does very little by way of notes or explanations to render the manuscript very useful. It does, however, contain interesting photographs from the Photography Collection of the University of Texas, which has a collection of McCullers’s papers. [Return to text.]

2The year is never specifically stated in the novel but can be deduced from events heard on the radio (citizens chasing Germans from Paris, Patton marching across Europe). Given the year, the novel begins on August 25, 1944 (“the last Friday of August.”) This is confirmed when we learn that Frankie was born the same month that Berenice’s first husband died, November 1931. When Frankie, in figuring how fast she is growing, considers that she is “twelve and five-sixths years old,” it shows that it is August 1944. [Return to text.]

3Buber’s Ich und du was translated as I and Thou and published in New York in 1937. The concept of existential dialogue had become familiar among New York intellectuals by the time McCullers had arrived there. [Return to text.]

4Margaret B. McDowell, Carson McCullers (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), p. 87. [Return to text.]

5Carson McCullers, “The Vision Shared,” in The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), pp. 262–65. This essay was originally published in Theatre Arts (April 1950). The paperback edition was published by Bantam in 1972, and this essays is found on pp. 297–300 with the quoted passage on p. 300. [Return to text.]

6There is a curious chronological mistake (as far as I can tell) that has greatly bothered me, enough to look at several editions of the novel to see if it was simply a typographical mistake, but all editions (including the first) that I consulted have it, and I cannot account for it. The mistake is that in the first two pages of the novel, it is made clear that the day is “the last Friday of August” and that as Bernice recounted, “Your brother come home with the girl he means to marry and took dinner today with you and your Daddy.” And yet several pages before the end of the first part, the narrator says: “So that Sunday when it happened, when her brother and the bride came to the house …” The latter cannot be a simple printer’s error, because it is the day that Berenice “changed into her Sunday clothes” and goes out with her brother and beau on her night off, Sunday night. Nor can it be a mistake that the novel sets the arrival of the brother and his fiancée on Friday, for it is on that day that Frankie makes her decision, which sets in motion what takes place the next day, Saturday, the day before the wedding, which is the subject of Part II. What makes this oversight hard to explain is that this novel was worked over by McCullers herself to convert it into a play, and surely she must have noticed this problem. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but if so, I cannot see it. [Return to text.]

7In Illumination and Night Glare McCullers describes how she received the “illumination” that Frankie’s reaction to the wedding was the key to the story. In McCullers’s drafts to that point, Frankie “was just a girl in loved with her music teacher, a most banal theme.” On Thanksgiving Day, she and her Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis hosted a dinner in their house in Brooklyn. That night McCullers and Gyspy Rose Lee stepped outside and “the fresh air after the long, elaborate meal cleared my head and suddenly, breathlessly I said to Gypsy, ‘Frankie is in love with the bride of her brother and wants to join the wedding.'” (p. 32). [Return to text.]

8Enthusiasts, etymologically, have been “inspired” or “inhabited” (en) by a god (theos). The ancient Greeks regarded madness as the immanence of the divine. Evangelists are those who announce (angellos, the same root as “angel,” who are simply divine messengers) the good (news) (eu).  [Return to text.]

American Illustration as Art

The Best of the Illustrations
in the Collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art

1. Emily supplemented her husband's meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, "Murder for Millions," Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1848), p. 17.

1. Emily supplemented her husband’s meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut “NBMAA”). Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, “Murder for Millions,” Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1948), p. 17.

The New Britain Museum of American Art, the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art and owner of a significant and comprehensive collection from early New England through post-contemporary, also was the first museum to begin collecting (in 1964) the work of American illustrators. Taking advantage of the large number of magazine, book and advertising illustrators who lived in Westport, Connecticut and the surrounding areas  accessible by train to New York City and using the expertise of a committee of prominent illustrators and art teachers, which has since met semi-annually to formulate the museum’s acquisition policies, the museum has amassed (mainly through gifts) a collection of over 1,800 works from the mid-nineteenth century onward, possibly the largest and most significant collection of American illustrations in existence. Last month the museum opened a “best of” exhibition, Masterpieces of The Sanford B.D. Low 
Illustration Collection which runs through October 2, 2016. The event gives us a chance to see some of the best examples of American illustration over the course of its history and also to see how we can react to examples of illustration art standing on their own.

2. Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Wood engraving by Edward LaGarde. Print at NBMAA. Illustration for Harper’s Weekly, September 20, 1873, pp. 824-25.

Just to start with a working definition (there is no agreed on one) illustration as used here means visual works intended for reproduction (usually in large numbers) and specifically conceived to comment on, explain or attract attention to a text or group of texts. This highlights the two features that differentiate illustration from other art forms. First, illustrators must concern themselves with the technology of reproduction. (This consideration was more important when means of reproduction were less sophisticated than today but it still prevails.) Second, the illustrator must take into consideration the demands of the author (usually) and the publisher (almost always). This second consideration makes illustration more “commercial” than, say, fine arts painting. A painter who disregards the market will simply not make money; an illustrator who does the same does not get work. With regard to advertisement illustrations the second consideratin is paramount, but the New Britain show only has one example of an illustration intended for advertisement, and that is a 1920s study by Joseph Christian Layendecker for a male clothing line by the House of Kuppenheimer, and is mainly an example of how illustrators mock up their pictures.

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

Illustration, unlike other forms of the visual arts, is tied to a text. Stand-alone art (for lack of a better descriptor) can tell a story or a scene, even one contained in a specific text. But illustrations are intended to be subordinate to the text and indeed produced with it. Moreover, the object that the artist produces is usually not what the consumer sees; the artist usually makes a master in some medium and then it is mechanically or photographically reproduced (usually by someone else) for printing together with the text. The “originals” from which the illustrations are produced until recently were not valued by their publishers (which generally owned them) and were often stored under suboptimal conditions. The New Britain Museum (under director, painter and illustrator Sanford B.D. Low) saw the opportunity to acquire work while simultaneously raising awareness and appreciation of illustrations. Many publishers saw this as a way to relieve themselves of storage problems. Prominent illustrators, grateful of the museum’s effort, assisted in selecting and recommending works and donated pieces from their own collections. We’ll return to how the “market” influenced American illustration outside of advertising illustrations.

The Beginning of American Illustration

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

At first American illustration was done exclusively by woodcuts.1 By this process an artist would draw lines on a wood block, and either he or (more usually) an engraver would cut away the area between the lines leaving only the raised lines to apply ink. Needless to say this was a tedious process and required the skills both in drawing and carving. Competence in these skills did not appear in America until the mid-nineteenth century, when illustrators began providing visual journalism as well as editorial comment in the form of caricatures and cartoons. Winslow Homer, for example, began his art career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. That magazine also contained the political cartoons of Thomas Nash (three of his anti-Lincoln caricatures are at the bottom of this post). Homer covered the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and his drawing printed in Harper’s Weekly became the visual record of the event seen by the vast majority, even though there was a photograph of the event. (Both Homer’s print and the photograph are shown in this post.) When the war commenced Homer became a visual journalist by means of his drawings. In fact, as he moved towards oils, he occasionally painted versions of drawings he made for the magazine. (See, for example, the Sharpshooter that was printed in the November 15, 1862 issue and only later turned into the painting shown in this post.) When Homer turned to painting full time, he often had his pictures engraved by others for printing. The sensibilities and compositional techniques he acquired as a magazine illustrator seemed to inform his early paintings. His work Snap the Whip, which he painted in two versions (#3) and had engraved for Harper’s Weekly (#4), is an example. Sensing a national mood (at least in the North which wished to put behind the violence and destruction of the war) yearning for peaceful domestic scenes, ones emphasizing cooperation and nostalgic depictions of the serene joy of childhood, Homer created Snap the Whip, which captured all three of these sentiments.

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to "The Cave of Bellmar" by F.F. Cavada, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to "Jeremy Train--His Drive" by An Old Fellow, Scribner's Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to “The Cave of Bellmar” by F.F. Cavada, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to “Jeremy Train—His Drive” by An Old Fellow, Scribner’s Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

Well conceived, technically competent illustrations had began appearing in American books in the 1840s. Before then, according to nineteenth century art critic Frank L. White (p. 33), the few decorations and “vignettes” in books “were, as a rule, wretchedly drawn and engraved.” It was in the mid-1840s that 21 year old Felix O.C. Darley first showed illustrations which were warmly received. In 1847 he presented to the New York Art Union his outline drawings for “Rip Van Winkle” (see #4). The performance would launch his career as an illustrator and also significantly influence the course of the field by showing the possibility for wood engraving and by elevating the standards that the public would expect. He would go on to illustrate other Irving works (including, famously, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New-York), Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the works of Cooper, Dickens, Longfellow, among other books. The iconography that Darley is best known for today is his visualization of Santa Claus from his illustrations of A Visit from Saint Nicholas (New York: J. G. Gregory, c1862), a work that would prove wildly popular. Illustrated books published in America were few and far between, however, because production was expensive and also American booksellers believed that American consumers preferred illustrated books from abroad, where there was a longer history. As one sellers said: “what smells of English ink sells best to American tastes” (“American Proficiency,” p. 155).

Illustrations for periodicals began in the 1850s, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had competent illustrations from the beginning. Its first issue (June 1850) not only contained illustrations of pieces on three contemporary intellectuals (Archibald Alison, Thomas Babington Macaulay and William H. Prescott), it also had an illustrated section on women’s fashions, something that would be repeated in following issues and would eventually lead to America’s first fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazar, a weekly first published on November 2, 1867 (without the later affectation of spelling its title “Bazaar”). The Harper brothers also launched a weekly political journal, Harper’s Weekly, the first issue of which (January 3, 1857) illustrated a first person story of a police officer’s cross-country search to arrest a bank forger. The Harper brothers had also published an extensively illustrated biography of Napoleon in 1855 with illustrations by Carl Emil Doepler, whose cartoons ran several times in the mid-1850s in Harper’s Monthly.

6. New-York—Bird's Eye View from Union Square." Woodcut. Illustration for "New-York Daguerreotped," Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (not in NBMAA show.)

6. New-York–Bird’s Eye View from Union Square Woodcut. Illustration for “New-York Daguerreotped,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (Not in NBMAA show.)

George Palmer Putnam competed with the Harpers’ firm for America’s best engravers. Although Harpers had been publishing books longer, it was the Putnam firm that published Darley’s Rip Van Winkle drawings and in the 1850s bought five other works of Irving illustrations by Darley and employed America’s best engravers on them, including Henry W. Herrick, J.W. Orr (and his firm), J.S. Harley, J.H. Richardson and others. Putnam began its own periodical two and a half years after the Harpers began theirs, but by the second issue (February 1853) it was illustrating Putnam’s Magazine with a series intending to show the architecture and cityscapes of major American cities beginning with New York (see #6). Putnam’s Monthly suspended publication in 1858 but resumed in 1868. Until the Gilded Age, the Harper brothers and Putnam published the only national general interest magazines that promoted illustrations.2

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, "The Phidian Age of Sculpture," The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (This low resolution scan of the image does not do justice to the quality of the image.)

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, “The Phidian Age of Sculpture,” The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (Not in the NBMAA show.)

The 1870s saw the beginnings of a number of national journals which attempted to capitalize on the greater wealth and leisure time of the upper middle class.3 The periodicals aimed at a decidedly more middle brow taste and while they tried to attract subscribers with illustrations, the new ventures could not compete with Harpers’ publications or Putnam’s book business for competent illustrators or engravers. Perhaps the new journals did not pay enough or established illustrators and engravers were under contract to other firms. Whatever the reason, the quality of illustrations in the new magazines were markedly inferior. (Compare the illustration from Scribner’s Monthly‘s inaugural issue with one from Harper’s Montly of the same month, #5). The situation improved as technological innovations in engraving (graphotype, zincography, etc.) leading to the photoengraving process made possible more detailed reproductions. The Century, for example, was able in 1881-82 to publish a series of essays on ancient sculpture (Central American, Mesopotamian, archaic and classical Greek) with good illustrations of the works discussed (e.g., #7). The introduction of the halftone reproduction technique allowed for the simulation of a smooth gradient of tints (by using dots instead of lines), which became commonplace in magazines in the 1890s, when the first flowering of American illustration took place. Later, using four halftone plates (one for black, the other three for the primary colors), which applied ink successively, color illustrations became possible.

The “Golden Age” of American Illustration: 1890-1920.

8. Hosea and the Parson by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. 1904. New Britain Museum of American Art. Illustration for the story “The Biglow Papers” in The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell Vol. 11 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1904).

Howard Pyle was the first to take advantage of the possibilities that the new technologies offered. Pyle used a variety of styles from pen and ink to oil on canvas (as in #8). But what made him in demand was his ability to distill down a narrative scene to a visually interesting essence, true to the story and at the same time adding scenic and psychological details that enhance it. The muted tones of Hosea and the Parson, surprisingly, are not off-putting, but rather they invite the viewer into the scene. On the museum wall, one among many works hanging at the same height, it was the one I gravitated toward. It is clear from the rendering that the visitor (Hosea) is acting deferentially to the Parson, who is reviewing documents of some importance to Hosea. The latter waits expectantly, erect, not sitting back in his chair, and holding his hat somewhat awkwardly. The composition creates the sense of tension but to understand the relation of the characters and the meaning of the scene, one must go to the text.

9. “… Tom heard the sound of another blow, and then a groan …” by Howard Pyle. Ink on paper. ca. 1891. NBMAA. Illustration for Howard Pyle, “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box,” Harper’s Round Table, March 24, 1896. Reprinted in the anthology Merle Johnson (comp.), Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (New York: Harper Brothers, 1821), p. 111.

Pyle’s sense for the essence of a drama came from a life-long interest in the theater, which began as a child. Pyle also wrote his own adventure stories and had a specialty illustrating stories for boys. As an author and an illustrator Pyle so absorbed the elements of the story that it seems he not only is watching first hand but is seeing it with the eyes of his audience. The line drawing for “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box” where Tom secretly watches a murder take place (in the illustration, #9, he hides behind a sand dune) has a fully composed construction with the four characters arranged in an undulating line (from front to back) which mirrors the undulating beach line and the tops of the dunes (as well as the blood from the chest of the dead man). And the scene captures the breathless, adolescent sense of seeing a murder, almost antiseptic except for the thrill (one wonders if the fact the victim was black contributed to this sense at the time). The scene expresses exactly what the prose (written by Pyle himself for an adolescent boys’ magazine) delivers.4

9. Abraham Lincoln's Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. (Not part of NBMAA show.)

9. Abraham Lincoln’s Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. Illustration to William H. Crook, “The Last Day of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, September 1907, p. 496 (Not part of NBMAA show.)

Pyle’s pirate illustrations demonstrate another of Pyle’s characteristics—his authenticity. Pyle believed that historical accuracy was essential to the visual sense of immediacy and therefore spent considerable time and effort researching the costumes (down to the buttons), equipment and behavior of historical pirates. As a result his portrayals (especially the monochrome and full color paintings of his Book of Pirates) became the emblematic version of pirates in the public mind. Likewise, his interest in American history and Americana generally was deeply researched in order to portray authenticity in the service of the dramatic moment. His illustrations of the American Revolution and Civil War are found in a number of books, including Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and History of the United States by James Truslow Adams (New York: Scribner’s, 1933).

Perhaps more important than his example (and popularity) to the course of Aermican illustration was his role as teacher and mentor. Unlike other artists who became illustrators in the early years, Pyle did not go to Europe for his education (he studied in Philadelphia and then the Art Students League in New York City), and after his success, he aimed to establish American instruction opportunities for would-be American illustrators. In 1894 he joined the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia to teach the first course for illustrators in America. He lectured at the Art Students League and eventually set up master classes in his home town of Wilmington, Delaware and in the summers at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. He built studios at his own expense, did not charge for his instruction and used his own contacts to introduce his gifted students to publishers. A generation of illustrators learned from Pyle.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem "The Maiden with the Valentine" by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

Anna Whelan Betts was a student of Pyle’s, one who took to heart his concern with period accuracy and one whom Pyle promoted. The illustration for the poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” (#10) shows everything she learned from Pyle. The picture captures a moment of quiet drama (which brought, in the words of the poem, “the dream-light to her face”). There is meticulous attention to costume and surroundings (the poem lists “the paneled-wall / The picture and the silhouette, / The whispering roses and the shawl”). Every part of the canvas is used to tell the story, including the bottom where we see the envelope, suggesting it was dropped by the maiden in her excitement to read the valentine. The color palette is only white, black and red, and the red is used sparingly to highlight her lips, the letter, the seal on the envelop and the trimming of her hooped skirt. Unfortunately, the print as seen in the magazine (which is hosted by Hathi Trust; scrolling to the next page shows the full poem) is only monochrome so the red cannot be seen by the readers. The illustration of Betts for upscale magazines (and Century had become the most important of illustrated magazines, seeking out the best illustrators and engravers and experimenting with reproduction techniques) generally documented the lives of well-to-do ladies in elegant dresses and sumptuous surroundings for magazines like Ladies Home JournalMcClure’s and Collier’s. But she was not entirely pigeon-holed. Together with Pyle and others of his students, she was chosen to illustrate the twenty-two volumes of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900). (She illustrated Twice Told Tales.)

11. “One More Step, Mr. Hands, ” said I, “and I’ll Blow Your Brains Out.” by N.C. Wyeth. Oil on canvas. 1911. NBMAA. Book (and jacket) illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Scribner’s Classics, 1911).

The New Britain exhibition contains works of other students of Pyle, but none were more important than N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations for Scribner’s reprint of Treasure Island clearly bear the influence of Pyle. The jacket illustration (#11), which is the one owned by the New Britain Museum (most of the rest are owned by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) captures a moment of high tension as the mutineer and the captain face down each other. The point of view, from the level of the mutineer looking up to the captain higher up in the rigging heightens the drama. As in both the first Pyle and the Betts paintings above, the entire canvas is filled with information to describe the scene. But the staging is the most important. He completely absorbed Pyle’s sense of dramatic timing which Pyle once explained: “The moment of violent action is not so good a point to be chosen as the preceding or following instant.” (Quoted in Barr, p. 176.) And Wyeth also embraced Pyle’s themes and subject matter; he would paint pirates and Americana (and knights, another favorite of Pyle’s) throughout his career. Wyeth was so devoted to Pyle that he used the payment from his Treasure Island series to purchase a place in Chadds Ford on the Bradywine River, from which the style created by Pyle and his students would take its name, the Brandywine School of American Illustration, a style that would long influence mainstream American illustration.

12. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance by Arthur Ignatius Keller. Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper. ca. 1906. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration for Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1906), p. 63.

Arthur Ignatius Keller represented a contemporary style outside the Brandywine School. Son of an engraver, he was steeped in the tradition that emphasized the line, yet he developed into a skilled painter in demand by both the illustrated magazines but also by book publishers. The 1906 publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of several books he illustrated of the works of Irving, Longfellow, Doyle, Lowell, Harte and others. The drawing of Icabod Crane dancing (#12) focuses on a moment in the story when the odd, awkward and delusional school teacher achieves his goal—dancing with the girl of his dreams, Katrina van Tassel. Icabod Crane is not only out of his league as a matter of social class, but also his self-conception is completely at odds with what people around him see. Keller shows Crane dancing in a totally inappropriate way but lost in his self-absorption; Crane is completely unaware. The beautiful daughter of the local patroon is bemused but not unkind, yet clearly she does not see herself matched with the story’s hero. All of this is captured by the composition, mostly by means of the by-then old fashioned method of line drawing as a template for the engraver. But the scene has a more modern touch with the spotlighted couple as one of a roomful of couples each engrossed in their own stories and concerns.

Keller’s ability to home in on the emotional center of a scene can be seen in another work in the exhibition, a charcoal drawing which was one of a dozen illustrations for a serialized novel publsihed by Century in 1909-10. The picutre shows a man watching his wife sleep, while contemplating the state of their marriage, as she has been separating from him and their infant in order to meet the demands of her writing career. All aspects of the composition, including the grey charcoal gulf between the two figures, contribute to the sense of separation which registers on teh husband’s concerned face.

Among the others from the “golden age” included in the show are James Montgomery Flagg, Harvey Thomas Dunn, Mary Hollock Foote,  Frederick Remington, Louis Loeb, Arthur William Brown, Walter Appleton Clark and Maxfield Parrish.

The Mainstreaming of American Illustraiton: 1920-1945.

After the War, continued technological progress made color illustrations easier and cheaper, and illustrated magazines grew their audiences. But the primacy of the illustrator declined in two ways. First, before the rise of movies the illustrator provided the only visual medium for the masses and often achieved a celebrity status in his own right, sometimes greater than the author whose work he ws illustrating. That status declined with the rise of film and with the appearance of the new art editors who no longer deferred to illustrators in matters of composition (see Arthur William Brown’s take in Reed, p. 43).  The post-war era saw the rise of another major influence on American illustration, this one also reduced the independence  and individuality of the artist—advertising. Norman Rockwell, no less, testified to the pernicious effect of the large budget advertising agencies: “Its influence was a mixed blessing. To many illustrators, including myself, I feel that it was a corrupting one. The temptation of their big budgets took away the kind of integrity that earlier artists like Howard Pyle brought to their work.” Rockwell, however, thought that advertising agencies provided a “school” for young illustrators. Of course a school whose mission was to create illustrators who could sell products is not quite the same as the Art Students League.

12. Clancy made her way south across Washington Square by Dean Cornwell. Oil on canvas. 1920. NBMAA. Illustration for Arthur Somers Roche, “Find the Woman: A Novel of Youth and Mystery,” Cosmopolitan (December 1920), pp. 58-59.

The economic influences did not make themselves felt at first. In fact, Howard Pyle’s influence was still predominant in the 1920, even though he had died in 1911. Dean Cornwell, who was president of the Society of Illustrators from 1922 to 1926 and teacher at Pratt Instituted and then the Art Students League, absorbed the Pyle tradition from his own teacher, Harvey Dunn, a student of Pyle’s. Cornwell’s work was more modern, not just in moving away from adventure stories and Americana, but also in his more sophisticate color palette, a more subtle compositional sense and his attention to atmospheric perspective. His 1920 illustrations for Cosmopolitan (e.g., #12) strikes one as more painterly than the work of Pyle and Wyeth, more concerned with visual rather than narrative impact. Rockwell considered Cornwell’s addition to the tradition a “monumental style almost rococco in manner” (Reed, p. 82), but there is no unnecessary decoration or complicated design (perhaps Rockwell meant baroque). In fact, Cornwell’s work seems to me to be firmly rooted in American romanticism with occasional techniques borrowed from American Impressionism and Tonalism. After his success as an illustrator, Cornwell would study mural painting in England and go on the paint murals for the Los Angeles Public Library, the Lincoln Memorial in Redlands, California, the Tennessee State Office Building, the Warwick Hotel and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, "Peter Ashley," Woman's Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, “Peter Ashley,” Woman’s Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

Two pictures from the exhibition showed that the 1920 and 30s were not entirely devoid of individual approaches. An ink and gouache drawing by John Held, Jr.  is one of his Arch and Magy cartoons depicting the exuberance of the Jazz Age. It is mostly outline drawngs with occasional solid fills of alternating foreground and background objects. An ink and wash painting by Henry Beckhoff, The Hillbillies (1934) for Collier’s, portrays the confrontation between backwoods farmers, fearful that their moonshining operation had been discovered, and a professor who was attempting to assist the government to bring them a more secure water source and better land. The elongated forms and the exaggerated expressions emphasize the humor in the situation.

In the 1920s and 30s American illustration in general, and illustration for the popular magazines in particular, gravitated to the then staple of popular culture (especially in magazines aimed at women), the melodramatic romance story. The illustration of Walter Biggs (#13) in the exhibition is a typical early example, Biggs was a successful illustrator but seemed more interested in his fine arts career for which he was elected to the National Academy of Design but obtained no lasting fame. As an illustrator Biggs often painted scenes of Southern romantic myth (the unreality of which is revealed by Ernest Watson’s statement (p. 37), evidently delivered without irony,  that “[n]o one, of course, can portray the colored folk with greater understanding.” Perhaps because his version of the Southern myth involved chivalry and ardent courtships, he was in great demand at Woman’s Home Companion (whose stories often told of strong-minded women and their passionate suitors). In any event, he sold almost all his illustrations to that magazine, and he always painted from models, never from photographs (Watson, p. 37).

14. [Love Scene] by Pruett Alexander Carter. Oil on canvas. ca. early 1940s. NBMAA. Unknown purpose.

By the 1940s more and more illustrators were being influenced by not only still photographs but also, and more importantly, motion pictures, which would become the the essential medium of popular culture.5 Carter’s unnamed love scene (#14) is composed much like what might be called a low angle two shot in movies. Carter’s first break was in New York where he illustrated Hearst papers. He returned to Los Angeles, where he was raised, around 1930 when he was nearly 40, although his chief occupation was still to provide illustrations for family and women’s magazines based on the East. The influence of Hollywood movies can be observed not only in the point of view but also in the lighting (which is #14 is vaguely from below the characters) and dramatic poses. Over time, however, his pictures became more more simplified, flat and often superficial, a characteristic he blamed on the inferior paper used by magazines in the 1940s (Hoppin, p. 41).

The influence of movies was felt in another way as well—the scenes were less “innocent” and less concerned with the well-to-do. Of course this had to do with the nature of stories that were selected for illustration, but the effect on illustration is noticeable. By 1942, however, the war would dominate all forms of popular culture.

15. The worst part was telling her father. "Who is the Man?" he asked. "I don't know," Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, "Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.," Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

15. The worst part was telling her father. “Who is the Man?” he asked. “I don’t know,” Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.,” Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

The Prohaska illustration above (#15) is from a story written by novelist Viña Delmar, a writer who specialized in shocking or scandalous stories of women, one of which Bad Girl (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, c1928), became an immense best-seller and opened a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood for her. The story “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.” begins with her heroine’s reflection on her own son, conceived out of wedlock during the last war by a soldier she met on Coney Island, a man she never saw again once he was mobilized. Her son is now a soldier in this second world war, and the story proceeds through her reflections and teaches her (and the readers) that the country, U.S.A., is in fact the father and husband of all women. Prohaska’s illustration is of the moment she tells her father of her pregnancy. He is tracing the troop movements on a map on the table, when she tells him she does not know who the father is. In the story there follows tense moments of silence. The scene, in which the father and daughter are separated by a table  on which the affairs of the world are traced, matters of little concern to Lily then, is explained with dialog selected to grab the reader’s attention and is spread across two pages at the beginning of the story.

16. One of the photos taken by Prohaska to use as a basis for painting #15. (Watson, p. 234.)

Prohaska had developed many of the skills used in movie-making to make such illustrations. He himself was adept at costume design (especially for women) and even could style hair. In this case he purchased vintage furniture dated in the 1910s from second hand stores and personally arranged the woman model’s hair. He staged the scene in a theatrical manner and then took 30 to 40 photos with his Contax or Rolleiflex cameras. Using the photographs he outlined his composition in ink, then laid in the light and dark areas with white and brown tempura, then painted the rest in transparent glazes and impasto colors. The technique was designed to give as the illustration as close to a cinematic feel as possible. It was precisely the opposite intention of a Golden Age illustrator like Walter Biggs who shunned photographs and insisted that only by painting from models could an illustrator fully translate his own art to the canvas. The economic and competitive pressures, as well as the branding of magazines, however, would put ever more pressure on the illustrator to see his job as part of an enterprise rather than an individualistic artistic endeavor.

One work on display at the New Britain exhibition, Smitty’s Diner by Warren W. Baumgartner (1943) struck me as to how interrelated cinema had become to all arts in America by the 1940s. In Baumgartner’s watercolor two men are seated at a diner counter, while the cook operating the grill is turned listening to one of the men. The painting evoked in me memories of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted the year before. Although the mood is different and the characters are not seen from the outside of the diner, the subject matter and the manner of illustrating them seems to owe a debt to Hopper, especially because it seems to give off a hardboiled feel to it. What makes this an interesting example of the intersection of cinema with American arts is that Hopper’s oil was based on Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which itself was turned into a movie directed by Robert Siodmak, which in turn relied on the sensibilities of the Hopper painting in several of the scenes in the diner.

Conformity and Departures: 1945-1960s and beyond

If illustrations are any evidence, then after the second global war America (at least the broad middle that consumed national magazines and print advertisements) was ready to inward and concern itself with mass entertainment and private concerns. Illustrated stories for women remained a mainstay for magazines, but women had gone through four years of dramatic change of circumstances and their status in society changed accordingly. Women were no longer characters who the fates acted on but became actors in their own right. Marriages were no longer seen as inviolable, even in Middle America. the excitement of such new freedom was reflected in the stories and illustrations found in even such conservative magazines as Saturday Evening Post. Austin Briggs plays with the sense of a woman’s new found freedom with his relatively emotionally static picture (#1), which depicts a model being posed for a photo shoot. The picture only becomes suggestive when paired with the title of Nancy Rutledge’s serialized novel, Murder for Millions. With the title and caption to the picture in mind, there are elements of the composition that become suggestive. Everywhere there are legs: on the camera, the tripod holding the fan, the ladder, the stepladder, and the legs of both figures. All, except the model’s, are splayed into a V pointing upward toward the model. What all this signifies can only be learned by reading the story, because, as Henry Pitz wrote (p. 24)the purpose of illustration is that customers are “stopping, reading, examining—buying.”

17. "Restrain," Regan cried. "I'm tired of restraint. There's more to love than waiting, Bill." by M Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration Christine Weston, "The Dark Wood," Ladies' Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

17. “Restrain,” Regan cried. “I’m tired of restraint. There’s more to love than waiting, Bill.” by M. Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration to Christine Weston, “The Dark Wood,” Ladies’ Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

Whitmore’s illustration for Christine Weston’s serialized novel concentrates on a woman, Regan, who has much more assurance and considerably more willingness to act on it than any of the women in the other illustrations we have encountered. Regan is married to an army veteran who has returned from the war wounded. While he was away, Regan fell in love with Bill, and in the picture, the two are consulting a lawyer (out of sight, to whom Regan is looking at) and Regan is pushing for decisive action. Bill, however, is embarrassed by Regan’s directness and possibly also her loudness (we can barely see on the right another restaurant patron listening in). Bill is covering his face with his hand while he is listening to his lover. He holds her hand (although her’s is on top) to signify his support, but she is making her case to the lawyer not to Bill. The illustration thus provides the information necessary to attract the kind of reader who might read the novel. It was this talent, rather than any desire to forward the art of visual representation, that earned Whitmore repeated opportunities at the highest paying magazines and a five-year contract to do covers for Cosmopolitan.

By the 1950s a new phenomenon arose in the field of magazine illustration—an immediatel;y recognizable visual style associated with one publication. The magazine of course was Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrator who created the look was of course Norman Rockwell. The magazine and the illustrator were a perfect fit. The magazine had a long history dating to the nineteenth century but it was only in the mid twentieth century that it hit upon its formula for success: combine illustrated serialized stories that did not threaten middle class tastes with non-satirical single frame cartoons, add a political content that was decidedly conservative but not particularly analytical and package it all with comforting, nostalgia-laden pictures of pretty much the same sort (white children found in “cute” activities or poses, non-urban white adults, usually from the heartland, engaged in activities that hearkened to longstanding traditions or habits). Norman Rockwell came aboard in 1916 and was the pioneer of the Saturday Evening Post‘s style, which in its full-blown  manifestation in the 1950s might be called “American Sur-romanticism,” a capitalist counterpart to Soviet Realism. In Rockwell’s works, figures are infantilized, juvenile features emphasized and retained long into adulthood. For example, noses are generally shorter, snub, unless a figure is portrayed as quirky or humorous. (See for example the painting Rockwell made, entitled Weighing In, for the June 28, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which is part of the New Britain exhibition.) Figures often seem excessively rounded compared to a relatively flat background. But most important the scenes depicted are ones designed to elicit a warm feeling of nostalgia and comfort.

Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations are so familiar that it’s not necessary to discuss those shown in the New Britain museum.  In any event, just over 60 miles from the New Britain Museum is the largest collection of Rockwell work, in a museum dedicated to his work. But Rockwell’s pieces are quintessential illustrations, designed to prompt impulse buys, not study, because they are, quite frankly, eminently cloying. What is interesting, however, is how this style of illustration was taken up by others who provided covers for the magazine. It became an officially endorsed style, policed by the promise of future commissions. John Philip Falter became acquainted with Rockwell when he opened a studio in New Rochelle, New York, where Rockwell himself worked. Falter painted his first cover for Saturday Evening Post during World War II and he became a staple of the magazine after the war. His Boys and Kites, possibly his most famous cover (published in March 18, 1960 issue), the original of which is in the New Britain show, has all the hallmarks of Rockwell, except that it adds a midwestern background to it. Stevan Dohanos is the illustrator most represented in the New Britain exhibition, and he also followed the general Post style closely. His Fourth of July, Bridgeport (1947: cover illustration, July 5, 1947) shows an elderly wife fixing the color of the dress uniform of her World War I veteran husband (who is carrying a rolled flag and baton) while a World War II veteran waits indulgently; both are about to participate in a patriot parade. His Rained in Vacationers (1948: cover illustration, July 31, 1948) shows an extended family trying to amuse themselves on the porch of an old building (with an upstairs rental for vacationers?) while heavy rain falls around them. Like many of the Post covers, this one contains the ever reliable family pet. And yet there is one canvas of Dohanos which uses many of the visual tropes of the Post style to create the exact opposite message: Sometimes childhood is not a time of joyous exploration and some things learned were best not learned.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, "Come of Age," Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, “Come of Age,” Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

As with the others of the Post-style illustration, Dohanos’s Heart Broken treats the non-human elements with a practiced simplicity, almost as if the grains of the wood and the blades of grass were design elements. The boy is dressed as one would expect a middle American middle class child to be and carries a large pen in his side pocket, a handkerchief half out of his back pocket and a death’s head amulet on a keychain. His left stocking has a hole just below h is knee pants. He is face down. We do not see his face, and as far as we can tell he might be playing hide-and-seek. But when we read the caption, we realize he is grieving. His arms cradle his head so that he can weep with abandon and block out all the world. The incongruity of the scene with the manner of illustrating it is the hook to lure the reader into the story, where we find that he has just learned on his way home that his brother has died in the war. This is perhaps the darkest use ever made of the Post style, and it is noteworthy that it was used for a story illustration and not a cover, because the subject violates all the marketing principles used by the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, old fashioned as the technique is and related to a conservative philosophy that wasn’t even true when it was being extolled, the painting draws in the viewer, which is the purpose of illustration and even has elements that are worth considering, which is not often the case with illustration.*

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn't keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, "No Visitors Till Noon," Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn’t keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, “No Visitors Till Noon,” Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

The 1960s (which may have begun before that decade officially began) would do in the Saturday Evening Post, not because of the libel suit it lost, but because its view of American life was no longer interested in the sugar-coated conservatism of the early 1950s. De Mers’s illustration (#19) shows as well as any how illustration entered the Mad Man eara. Even before we consider the relation of the women, we see a scene where everything is up-to-date, “modern” according to the taste-makers of the day—advertisers. In the foreground is a table with sixties-style decanter and glasses as well as the ornaments of upper middle class ostentation. These items almost squeeze out the two figures of the story. The more central character wears capri pants and a yellow blouse with a collar that covers her neck. Her blonde hair completes the amber look of the woman who is backed by the yellowish wall. The other woman, who we see against the other, brownish wall is dressed in a short one-piece all black dress. with elbow length gloves, a black hat and dark glasses. The two women represented two poles in what passed for sixties chic. And that piece of information is enough to introduce us to the story in which the women become adversaries. All of this can be absorbed in a quick glance.

Of course the sixties would begin a process of experimentation that has not yet ended. Illustration, as much as most other art forms, became intertwined with domestic decoration, product design, technological necessity and consumer demand. Some arts were able to retreat into academic protection to maintain a freedom from commerce. Illustration, which depends on commerce, could not. So, at least based on the evidence from the New Britain exhibition, illustration remained representational, even though it borrowed techniques from contemporary fine arts. But all of that is beyond this post. You can judge for yourself at the exhibition.

So based on all of the foregoing, is there a way to evaluate illustration in a formal manner? Try as I might, I personally could not draw any larger conclusions except that each piece was subservient to the text or product it was promoting. Of course some art forms can support others: poetry, for example, can provide the basis of oratorios or lieder. On the other hand nothing associated with advertisement, whether music, illustration or film, really can rise above the product. But the New Britain exhibition demonstrates that several generations of very talented American artists lent their talents to lesser forms of creativity. The masterworks selected by the staff are each arresting in themselves. And when considered chronologically may in fact be genuine artifacts describing American cultural mores of a particular time. Is this art? Only the consumer can tell, now that we have become solipsists. The New Britain show at very least allows viewers to make up their own minds.

And there is an added benefit. The museum itself is a remarkable tour of American art. There is no place like it for a concentrated dose of the history of American visual art. And with that background, one is better equipped to decide how to appreciate American illustration.

Notes

1Steel engraving had existed since 1792 but was never used in printmaking, although it had specialized uses, such as for reproductions of art work or to produce illustrations on bank notes and securities. [Return to text.]

2In addition to Harper’s Monthly and Putnam’s Monthly, there existed another national arts and culture journal The Atlantic Monthly. The Boston brahmins affirmatively declined illustrating their articles and held out throughout the nineteenth century, although they printed illustrated advertisements after the Civil War. The illustrations for advertisements became so lavish by the early twentieth century that the policy against even tasteful illustration of the reading material seemed perverse. [Return to text.]

3Scribner’s Monthly launched its inaugural November 1870 issue calling itself “an illustrated magazine for the people.” A series of ownership changes and management crises after the death of Charles Scribner in 1871 eventually led to the sale of the magazine (and its publishing company) to new owners whose editorial direction was more upscale and cultural. The new magazine was called The Century Magazine. A 5-year non-compete agreement as part of the sale prevented the Scribner heirs from founding a magazine until 2886, when they commenced a monthly journal called Scribner’s Magazine. Collier’s Once a Week began in 1888 and by 1895 called itself Collier’s Weekly: An Illustrated Journal. McClure’s Magazine, an illustrated political and literary monthly began in 1893. The Gilded Age also saw the appearance of national magazines directly aimed at women. Women’s Home Companion started in 1873 and began including illustrations in the 1880s. Ladies Home Journal started in 1883. The two competed for what turned out to be a very large market through the mid twentieth century. [Return to text.]

4This is how the scene reads:

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the three figures reappeared from behind the sand hill, the pirate captain leading the way, and the negro and white man following close behind him. They had gone about halfway across the white, sandy level between the hill and the hummock behind which Tom Chist lay, when the white man stopped and bent over as though to tie his shoe.

This brought the negro a few steps in front of his companion.

That which then followed happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so swiftly, that Tom Chist had hardly time to realize what it all meant before it was over. As the negro passed him the white man arose suddenly and silently erect, and Tom Chist saw the white moonlight glint upon the blade of a great dirk knife which he now held in his hand. He took one, two silent, catlike steps behind the unsuspecting negro. Then there was a sweeping flash of the blade in the pallid light, and a blow, the thump of which Tom could distinctly hear even from where he lay stretched out upon the sand. There was an instant echoing yell from the black man, who ran stumbling forward, who stopped, who regained his footing, and then stood for an instant as though rooted to the spot.

Tom had distinctly seen the knife enter his back, and even thought that he had seen the glint of the point as it came out from the breast.

Meantime the pirate captain had stopped, and now stood with his hand resting upon his cane looking impassively on.

It continues in this manner. Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, pp. 110-11. [Return to text.]

5While the influence of motion pictures on illustration was first shown in illustrations such as Carter’s (#14) it was not long before reference to the framing by movies was explicitly recommended to illustrators. Henry Pitz’s 1947 primer for aspiring illustrators makes this point of movie techniques:

[The] ability to swing the camera (which is the beholder’s viewpoint) through every possible arc of vision, has opened up a whole new world of pictorial possibilities. It has released picture-making frm the normal eye-level viewpoint and stimulated the search for newer rhythms. Best of all, the American public, insatiable consumer of the films that it is, has become accustomed to the new viewpoints and craves the same things in its magazines. So diagonal thrusts, angular and eccentric rhythms, and bird’s-ey viewpoints have become commonplace in the new compositional vocabulary.

[Return to text.]

Sources

Anthony, A.V.S., Timothy Cole and Elbridge Kingsley, Wood Engraving: Three Essays with a List of American Books Illustrated with Woodcuts (New York: The Grolier Club, 1916).

Barr, Pamela (ed.), New Britain Museum of American Art: Highlights of the Collection, Vol. III: The Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, c2016).

Congton, Charles T., “Over-Illustration,”  The North American Review, Vol. 139, No. 336 (Nov., 1884), pp. 480-491.

Goodman, Helen, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring—Summer, 1987), pp. 13-22

Hoppin, Martha J., Love Story: Selections from the Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection, New Britain Museum of American Art, February 14-March 31, 2002 (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2002).

Pitz, Henry C., The Practice of Illustration (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1947).

Reed, Walt (ed,), The Illustrator in America: 1900-196o (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., c1966).

Watson. Ernest W., Forty Illustrators and How They Work (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., c1946).

White, Frank L., “American Book-Illustration,” The Connoisseur, Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1887), pp. 33-35.

“American Proficiency in Illustration,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (September, 1859), pp. 154-157.

In addition I browsed through files of the following magazines: Atlantic Monthly, Century Illustrated MonthlyCollier’s WeeklyHarper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s WeeklyLadies Home Journal, Liberty, McClure’s MagazinePictorial ReviewPutnam’s Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Monthly and Woman’s Home Companion.

Turner’s Whaling Canvases (and a little Melville)

A small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan (through August 7, 2016) shows that in the late 1840s it was not just Herman Melville who was thinking about the business of whaling as a subject fit to expand an art form. The Met has re-assembled the four oils that Turner painted around 1845 that treat the dangerous, bloody and seemingly existential business of whaling by putting together in the same room for the first time since they were in Turner’s studio its own Whalers together with the related ones now owned by the Tate. While these few paintings might seem a thin reed to base a Melville-Turner connection, if you read to the end, you might find some interesting points of connection (and some wild conjectures).

Turner and the Sea

1. Fishermen at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. ca. 1792. Oil on canvas. Tate. London. (BJ 1.) (As with all the illustration in this post, click to enlarge and click again to enlarge further.)

For some, Turner was principally, if not exclusively, a landscape painter. At the Met last week, I was surprised when a woman remarked to me (out of nowhere), “I thought Turner was a landscape painter.” John Ruskin, Turner’s early and greatest champion, also saw him as principally a landscape painter, and that’s how he’s treated in Modern Paintings.1 But maritime works were a core part of his output. The first painting the 21 year old Turner exhibited, his Fishermen at Sea, [#1] was a maritime picture but also a breathtaking production that made the familiar dramatic with bold lighting from the moon illuminating a boat atop an undulating sea defined by dark water and white crests, white reflections and white birds. The chiaroscuro effect emphasizes the power of the sea and also implies that the water nests the fishermen who appear serene in the midst of the surges. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1802. when he was 27, owing in large part to his Dutch Boats in a Gail [the “Bridgewater Seapiece”] (1801; BJ 14), which was a popular success when exhibited to the Royal Academy in 1801 and was considered by Henry Fuseli and Benjamin West to surpass the Dutch models and even Rembrandt! From then on maritime subjects became a staple for Turner. A maritime painting was the first of Turner’s paintings to be engraved. (The painting The Shipwreck (BJ 54), exhibited in 1805, was engraved by J. Burnet in 1853.) Hermann (p. 1) found that 150 of the 541 oils catalogued Butlin and Joll have the sea as its central feature, and this doesn’t count historical/mythological pictures or views of harbors or Venice.

2. The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J.M.W. Turner. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1810. Fundaçao Calouste Gulbendikan, Lisbon.) (BJ 210.)

The sea with the men and vessels on it was a subject that was not only dramatic in itself, but also one central to the psyche of the island nation who allowed its rulers to impress foreign seamen so that its own navy and merchant marine could continue to supply the “nation of shopkeepers” with its economic vitals. Britannia took pride in ruling the oceans, and Turner was more than willing to become its visual chronicler, booster and sometime critic. Between Dutch Boats in a Gale and Wreck of a Transport Ship [#2] Turner had a “decade of painting grand seapieces” which he would no return to until the late 1820s (BJ 210). When Turner took up seascapes again, this time more or less regularly, with Port Ruysdael, exhibited in 1827 (BJ 237), he would concern himself with churning seas, which Ruskin described as the “white, wild, cold, comfortless waves of the north sea” which in the composition are “almost subordinate to the awful rolling clouds.” (Modern Painters I:379.)  To Ruskin Turner was the undisputed master of both the sky and the sea:

3. Margate from the Sea: Whiting Fishing by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1822. Private collection.

“it may be generally stated that Turner is the only painter, so far as I know, who has ever drawn the sky, (not the clear sky, which we before saw belonged exclusively to the religious schools, but the various forms and phenomena of the cloudy heavens,) all previous artists having only represented it typically or partially; but he absolutely and universally … He is the only painter who has ever represented the surface of calm, or the force of agitated water; who has represented the effects of space on distant objects, or who has rendered the abstract beauty of natural color. These assertions I make deliberately, after careful weighing and consideration, in no spirit of dispute, or momentary zeal; but from strong and convinced feeling, and with the consciousness of being able to prove them.” (MP  I:138-39).

4. Regulus by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1828, reworked 1837. Tate, London. (BJ 294.)

To achieve mastery of skies and seas, particularly turbulent ones, the treatment of light (including reflection, chiaroscuro and diffusion) as well as color (although the more experimental approaches to color came later) needed to be subordinated to his overall approach. Like many romantic painters (including those of the more-or-less contemporary American Hudson River School) Turner began with a fondness for lighting the picture from a central source in the background. As time went on, Turner used sunlight in both seascapes and landscapes that approached closer to the horizon (see Margate from the Sea [#3]). As he increased the intensity of the light, it threw the forms on both sides into something like relief. In Regulus (rev. 1837) [#4] the viewer sees sunlight so intense that it obscures the objects on either side of its direct rays. The effect was one that Turner vigorously applied himself to create. John Gilbert, whose own exhibit was on the opposite wall to Turner’s at the British Institution exhibition, saw Turner rework the piece in 1837:

5. Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1838. Private Collection. (BJ 375.)

“The picture was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in this fiery state. He had a large palette, nothing in it but a huge lump of flake-white; he had two or three biggish hog tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface. This was the only work he did, and it was the finishing stroke. The sun, as I have said, was in the centre; from it were drawn—ruled—lines to mark the rays; these lines were rather strongly marked, I suppose to guide his eye. The picture became wonderfully effective, just the effect of brilliant sunlight absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object.” (BJ 294.)

6. Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 398.)

A similar concept (also of an ancient historical setting) was used the following year in Turner’s Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome [#5]. The critics were not charitable to these experiments. Ruskin, after Turner’s death (in his 1857 Notes) found Regulus to be “very disgraceful to Turner,” and the Anthenaeum (May 12, 1838) concluded on the basis of Ancient Italy that it was “grievous to think of talent, so mighty and so poetical, running riot into such frenzies; the more grievous, as we fear, it is now past recall.”

7. Peace—Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 399.)

Storms at sea as well as night on the ocean required Turner to understand how to express the absence of light, and he engaged in a similar path of experimentation. In Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead [#6], he painted a swirl of light and dark encircling a craft listing in mortal danger. Turner added a subtitle: “The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich.” It is less important that the documentary evidence does not support this claim than the fact that Turner called himself an “Author” not “Artist.” The painting was intended to be journalistic; that is, recorded by an observer. And to our eyes the painting has real authenticity. But the contemporary critics found the work insufficiently representational. Punch and other satirists routinely compared Turner’s work of this period to various salads and the Anthenaeum (May 14, 1842) condemns Turner for using “his whole array of kitchen stuff. Where the steam-boat iswhere the harbour begins, or where it ends—which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel … are matters past our finding out.” The idea that the piece should be criticized for expressing the emotional intensity of experiencing the storm’s ferocity instead of subordinating it to a “literal” depiction of physical forms and relationships (one that could not be seen under the circumstances portrayed) seems odd to us who have absorbed a century and a half of developments in painting and other pictorial technology. But the radicalness of the approach, pre-Impressionism and before the New was celebrated, can be perhaps best understood by considering that Ruskin himself expressed (privately) his view that the was nothing more than “whitewash and soapsuds.”2 When Turner combined his mastery of intense light, pure blackness and his experiments with reds and yellows of early 1840s, he produced Peace [#7], a visual threnody of surprising power. What did the most informed art writers of his time think of it? Clarkson Stanfield of the Royal Academy thought the sails were too black. The newspaper critics were uniformly hostile, with the Spectator (May 7, 1842), insinuating its lack a patriotism (or its radicalness) by dubbing it “rouge et noir.” Other newspaper commentators competed to make even less witty disparaging remarks. But even Ruskin (in his 1857 Notes) criticized the “unnatural blackness of the sails.

8. Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (BJ 385.)

The most effective of Turner’s black-red-yellow experiments was Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840; BJ 385) [#8]. Turner here subordinates composition to the interplay of colors. The most clearly defined object is a human leg surrounded by fish in the right foreground. Hands appear to be sticking up from the sea further back. We see a ship somewhat obscured by the mist or fog. What the painting essentially consists of is the layering of black, yellow, red and white (with a few other colors for details). The interplay of the colors makes up the sea, which imperceptibly becomes the sky, which takes up half the canvas. Turner regarded it as the noblest sea Turner ever created, and, therefore, “the noblest ever painted by man.” The ship is forcing its way through uneasy surf, moving away from the central light (lightning?) but framed in an ominously red sky. The production heaves with moral revulsion.

9. Van Tromp’s Shallop at the Entrance of the Scheldt by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1832. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut . (BJ 344.)

The newspapers once again objected to the lack of sharp definition of objects. And it is certainly true that the works of the 1840s were considerably less “representational” than those of the 1830s, such as the Von Tromp’s Shallop [#9]. The earlier paintings followed the approach that had come to be accepted among Dutch painters earlier in the century. The Dutch painters attempted a sort of “verisimilitude” that made the objects throughout the painting distinct, even though a person viewing the scene in nature could not see the actual scene in that way, most of the scene being confined to peripheral vision. But in the 1830s Turner had departed from the Dutch models by adding atmospheric perspective so that German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen considered Turner’s approach as “a crude painted medley with a general foggy appearance” constituting a “total want of truth.”3 Ruskin expends a great deal of effort in defending Turner from this kind of criticism by way of a minute explanation of the nature of atmospheric perspective (the effect of air, depending on its moisture content, to make more obscure and paler distant objects, to the extent of their distance), although he had no term for it, simply calling it one of the intentional “mysteries” of Turner’s painting. (MP, IV:68-79.) It is in the context of Ruskin’s defense of Turner’s renderings of skies and clouds (and by extension distant objects) that Ruskin makes his provocative statement: “We never see anything clearly.” (MP IV:58.) That defense, however, depended upon rendering the forms “definite”: “You can only show how the light affects the object, by knowing thoroughly what the object is; and noble mystery differs from ignoble, in being a veil thrown between us and something definite, known, and substantial; but the ignoble mystery is a veil cast before chaos, the studious concealment of Nothing.” (MP IV:73.)  But this is where Turner and Ruskin (at least the younger Ruskin) parted ways. And it is why Ruskin denigrated the first of the whaling canvases at the Met exhibit.4

Turner, Whales and Whalers

*10. The Whale on Shore by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1837. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio. (The asterisk—*—indicates the piece is shown as part of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition.)

It was during his new, more expressionistic, departure in the 1840s that the whaling projects were conceived. Turner had only once before taken any interest in whales and that was a watercolor [#10] designed to be engraved for an illustration to a multivolume collection of Walter Scott works (specifically to an abridgment of The Pirate). The work is strikingly busy. The scene represents an important plot point in the novel. During an attempt to kill a whale the pirate of the title (who had earlier been saved by the hero) rescues the hero from drowning. Their obligations now cancelled out, they may begin their rivalry for the same love interest. Even given the elaborate and fully populated scene by Scott, it is remarkable how many things are going on in Turner’s picture. The whale is near shore in the midground right. The rescue takes place in the foreground. A thunderstorm is off shore to the left. And the whale is being harassed by boats and attacked with all sorts of weapons including muskets. The picture is filled with scores of people. The composition was perhaps designed to give a flavor of the fanciful nature of the novel. In the midst of the chaos, the whale itself is quite odd. Hamilton (p. 94) says that it has the look of a “post-medieval bestiary woodcut illustration.” It is interesting to note, however, that the whale is clearly a right whale, the kind of whale most common in the North Atlantic, and not a sperm whale, which Turner would paint in his canvases.5 Neither the style nor the content of the painting, however, prefigures the whale canvases.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored acquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored aquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

Hamilton (p. 92) suggests as a possible guiding influence on Turner’s mid-1840 departure in maritime works Captain Elisha Ely Morgan, an affable old Yankee mariner, who regularly appeared in London, owing to his packet service between New York and London and Liverpool. While in London Morgan cultivated the foremost literary and artistic lights, including Dickens and Thackeray. Turner became such an enthusiast of Morgan’s tales of the open sea (Turner himself never made an ocean voyage) that the two became so close that Morgan added Turner to the list of his intimates who were sent a box of American cigars when Morgan returned to New York. Hamilton speculates that Morgan’s stories may have influenced Turner’s evolution in sea painting from the academically-based paintings of the 1830s to the dramatic and emotion-filled pictures of the 1840s. (It may not be a coincident that Morgan was an abolitionist, and Turner painted the Slavers in 1840.) Morgan had also spent a year whaling in Greenland, so that might have been an impetus to the specific project. But Turner had other sources of inspiration.

12. Boats Attacking Whales by William James Linton. Engraving published as frontispiece to Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839).

Natural history, and the order of the living world, was a component of English cultural conversations in the 1840s and for many years before that. The five volumes written by various naturalists under the supervision of Charles Darwin describing the specimens he collected during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle were published from February 1838 to October 1843 (under the general title Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle). Darwin’s own Journal and Remarks on the voyage (which contains references to whales and whaling throughout) was published in 1840.6 The Beagle was only one of a number of government sponsored expeditions, designed to explore sea routes but also to report on and collect new or little known organisms as a matter for scientific research. Specifically with respect to whales, although the British whaling industry was at depression levels owing to foreign (mainly Yankee) competition, whaling still captured the public’s attention. There was a fair amount of conventional art, including popular engravings [e.g., #11], as well as travelogues, histories of voyages and even literature. (Melville’s Typee, which was first published in London in 1846 and well received, portrayed sailors from the whaler The Dolly). Perhaps most important of the authentic descriptions of whaling was Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), which both Turner and Melville consulted.7 While the illustrations were fanciful [e.g., #12 with sperm whales frolicking and leaping wholly out of the water in the manner of dolphins], the text, written by a British surgeon, strove for accuracy not only about whales but also about a whaling voyage that Beale himself undertook.

13. Wreckers–Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore b y J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1834. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

Financially Turner’s biggest inspiration probably was the rich spermaceti magnate Elhanan Bicknell, who had long been in the whaling business but had liquidated his investments before the bust. He was now a wealthy connoisseur of British painting, including Gainsborough, Landseer, Stanfield, Etty and others,  and had previously patronized Turner. According to Sutton, he became a champion (or at least a purchaser) of Turner before even his friend John Ruskin did. In the year before Turner painted the first two whaling oils, Bicknell purchased eight canvases by Turner.8 (The year 1844, however, was the year after the first volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters was first published, and it caused something of a bull market in Turner works.) Among the works of Turner he bought was Wreckers, a work that received universal praise on its exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1834 and the British Institution in 1836. Turner’s attempt to reel in Bicknell was not only unsuccessful, however, it also resulted in a permanent breach in their relationship.

*14. Whalers by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Tate, London. (BJ 414.)

In 1845 the 70 year old Turner was interim president of the Royal Academy. For his contribution to that summer’s annual exhibition (he was a member of the hanging committee) he selected his two whaling paintings [##14 & 15] together with four Venetian scenes. The whaling canvases both involve what whalers called the “chase,” and in the 1845 catalogue both refer to chapter XIII of “Beale’s Voyage” (i.e., Beale, Natural History of the Sperm Whale) for a description of the action. Beale describes the chase and capture as follows:

*15. Whalers (The Whale Ship) by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (BJ 415.)

“When in pursuit of the whale with the boats, it occasionally happens that just at the moment the harpoon is about to be plunged into its body, the whale suddenly descends, leaving nothing but a vortex to mark the spot where but a moment before it was seen floating; but its course, however, has been observed, and the boats are placed in a position to be as near as possible to it when it again rises to breathe; the time, as has been before stated, when he will do this is known to a minute. If they should be more fortunate in the next rising of the whale, and they succeed in darting the harpoon into its body, then immediately after the first struggles of the wounded animal and when he is lying exhausted from his enormous exertions to escape, or free himself from the harpoon, the boat’s head is placed close to its side, and the headsman begins to destroy it by thrusting his lance into its most vital parts, which lie near the fin, or darting at it from a distance; at the moment of lancing, he cries ‘stern all’; the oars are then immediately backed and the boat’s stern becoming its cutwater, it is thus removed from danger without the loss of time and trouble in turning. Again, when feeling the lance, the whale plunges and throws itself in all directions, lashing the water with its tail, or rearing its enormous head, and threatening destruction with its formidable jaw, (see cut, p. 154).” (pp. 159-60).

16. South Sea Whale Fishery by William Huggins. Engraving on p. 154 of T. Beale (1839).

The two paintings represent sequential events. The first (BJ 414) [#14] shows the whale boats in the process of harpooning the whale. The harpooner in the stern of the boat (the foremost of the human figures) is about to throw. The one slightly behind has no harpoon in hand and is perhaps cheering a hit. The whale, which is seen as only a brown mound to the right. His spout is slightly pink, showing that it has been injured enough to be exhaling blood. The men are pulling back the oars, the very thing Beale describes they do after the headsman cries, “stern all.” What is most remarkable about the painting, however, is the whiteness of the spray which obscures the scene and blends into the sky and sails of the distant ship. The oval effect created by the spray and clouds curving over the heads of the whalers creates a sense of urgency to the action. But it is the color that Turner uses to create the bright pacific sun over the sea that is most noticeable. The Spectator (May 10, 1845) remarked on the “prismatic brilliancy” of the “hues of light.” The Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845) concluded that Turner’s “scale of color has never … been approached by any other man;  … it is a development of elements essential in nature, carried far above her usual aspects.” The color must have faded over time, because the Morning Chronicle (May 7, 1845) praises the effect of the “red clothing of the sailors in the boat” which now appear brown. This may be an example of Turner’s point that owing to the materials used, Turner’s colors are not permanent.9 But even with the fading, the sense is one of blinding white sunlight in the mist.

Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

17. Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

The second painting (BJ 415) [#15], which shows the whale’s breach which followed its sounding on being harpooned, is at initial glance a more iconic composition. The head of the whale is seen in the foreground with the ship seemingly chasing it. To the right there is a large splash, possibly caused by the whale’s fluke. On closer inspection, between the whale and the ship are the boats stuggling against the waves caused by the whale’s actions. One boat seems ot have capsized, another is in the process of being upended with whalers holding the sides, and the third seems just beginning to feel the effects of the upheaval of the ocean. The story from Beale (pp. 173-76) is of an operation off Japan in June 1832. It was late afternoon when the whale was harpooned and successfully lanced, but it sounded deep and when it breached it hit one boat with its head upending it. It circled the men in the water, but did not harm them. When the whale was again lanced, it died and sunk, never to be seen again. The men, however, were all rescued. The culmination of the two scenes then is a near death experience ending in ultimate futility, a conclusion that Turner often urges for all manner of human endeavor, especially by quoting from his (never found) poem “Fallacies of Hope.”

Like its companion piece, in the second Whalers the atmospheric perspective is made through a brilliant foreground lighting effect rather than solely through darker tinted backgrounds. And unlike Regulus [#4] and its “huge lump of flake white forced into all the crevices of the canvas,” the brilliance of the surface was made up of different hues and tints. While Punch (January-June 1845, p. 233)  compared its effects to that of “lobster salads,” the critic for the Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845), while preferring Turner’s earlier work (because it did not “sublimate truth” to imagination) saw that the “handling of the tints, and their harmony, allowing for the exalted pitch of prismatic brightness, are astonishing. Splintered rainbows thrown against the canvas is a better comparison than … lobster sauce … .”

Bicknell took home the second of the Whalers but discovered that it was finished in part with water color, and he took that as a sign that Turner had not given enough time or care to finish the work properly. He attempted to remove the watercolor himself and damaged the work. A confrontation with Turner arose when he returned it for Turner to re-finish. Turner dug in his heels, and the dispute soon merged with another one,10 the combination of which seems to have ended their personal relationship.

*18. Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’ by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 423.)

Nothing discouraged, Turner undertook to paint two more whaling paintings for the next year’s Royal Academy show. The first, Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish! [#18], depicts the “cutting in” process for a whale that has been hauled in (see chapter 67 of Moby Dick for a description) and the “baling of the case” (Moby Dick, chapters 77 and 78). The second, Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavouring to extricate themselves [#19], shows the final stage of the process of rendering fat into commercial oil. But like the first pair, this pair begins with a euphoric moment (a catch that fills the hold?) and ends with a potential disaster—the ship trapped in packed (flaw [sic]) ice. In fact, if you look at the four paintings in order, you can discern the sequence of the business of obtaining spermaceti and other oils from the sperm whale: first the chase, then the (unsuccessful) kill, then the cutting in and retrieving the spermaceti from the head and finally boiling the blubber for residual oil. But the two sets are also distinct. Not only do the 1845 paintings and the 1846 ones take place in different seas (a point I will discuss below), but their focus is also different. The first set observes men confronting nature, and they do it with sheer brute manpower. There is no sign of machines or technology (beyond simple Iron Age tools). In the 1846 set the focus is on the manufacturing aspect of whaling: retrieving the spermaceti, cutting in and rendering the blubber. The last painting shows how industrial methods have been brought to this far-away sea by means of the try-works (see Moby Dick, chapter 96). It is true that disaster faces this crew too (in the form of the ice pack), but that is simply part of the order of things: the fallacy of hope; it is not a condemnation of industry itself.

*19. Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 426.)

For a long time art historians had seen this second pair as depictions of whaling in the Arctic, and then criticized Turner for details that were unrealistic. There was no commercial whaler known as Erebus, sperm whales are rare in the Arctic, Arctic whalers did not boil blubber and so forth. Wallace (1988), however, persuasively showed that the painting were of Antarctic waters and that Erebus was not a commercial whaler but rather a former bomb ketch refitted as a research vessel, sent (with another converted bomb ketch, the Terror, which had seen service in the War of 1812 against the United States) to explore southern sea lanes, to investigate the magnetism of the earth and also to “use every exertion to collect the various objects of Natural History which the many heretofore unexplored countries about to visited would afford.” (Richardson & Grey, p. v.) The youngest member of the expedition (which took place from 1839 to 1843) was the 22 year old Joseph Dalton Hooker, who would become one of the eminent botanists (specializing in geographical botany) and evolutionists in England and Darwin’s closest friend, defender and confidant. (He wrote the “Summary of the Voyage” which introduced Richardson & Grey’s first volume of the zoology of the voyage.)  As a member of the Anthenæum Club, Turner would have known a number of persons familiar with the voyage, including Hooker’s respected father, William Jackson Hooker.11 Wallace speculates that Turner might have even talked with expedition commander Captain James Clark Ross when he returned to London in 1843.

20. Cartoon published by Almanack of the Month (June 1846), p. 350.

The relevance of the location depicted may have to do (as Wallace argues with the nature of the illumination of the objects in the two pictures. Unlike the bright light of the first set of whalers which runs towards a warm color temperature, the color temperature of the second set is decidedly cooler, more bluish, even though the intensity seems the same. Wallace (1988, p. 27) says that the 1846 paintings give off “a wondrous radiance that is almost benedictory in its quality”; the first one having a “copper calm” and the second a “shimmering azure transparency.” Sympathetic contemporary critics struggled to explain what Turner was trying to achieve but they nonetheless remarked on the handling of color. About the first painting [#18] the Literary Gazette (May 9, 1846) said: “So entirely is the eye carried away by a sort of indistinct and harmonious magic, that we seem to consent to the abandonment of solid truth and real nature altogether, and allow dark ships to be chrome yellow, whales glittering pink, human beings sun or moon beams, and little thick dabs of paint ethereal clouds.” The Anthenaeum (May 9, 1846) praised the Boiling Blubber picture for allowing the viewer to make out forms, although color still predominates: “one can make forms out of those beautiful, though almost chaotic colours. The sea-green hue of the ice, the flicker of the sunbeam on the waves, the boiling of the blubber, and the tall forms of the ice-bound vessels, make up an interesting picture.” Given the Ruskin’s remark about the impermanence of Turner’s colors and the inference that the color of the sailors’ outfits in #14 faded considerably, it is probable that we do not today see the intended brilliance of the hues. Nevertheless, they are still striking. Those who denied any merit to the works simply ignored what Turner was attempting because they had long ago given up on Turner altogether. Instead of analysis they reverted back to the by-now-hackneyed lobster salad quip. The Almanack of the Month (June 1846) extended the quip beyond its already thin breaking point and added a caricature of Turner [#20] for those who failed to get the point.

What was Turner intending? Wallace argues (1988, p. 28), plausibly I think, that Turner intended to portray the unique atmospheric effects of the Antarctic region, which he learned of through reading Hooker’s journal (in December 1840-January 1841) or possibly through the impressions Hooker conveyed to his father, relayed to Turner at the Anthenæum Club. Hooker made the point that the meteorology and light of the Antarctic was distinct from that of the Arctic. And then he writes a passage that could describe the light effects of the second set of whalers:

“The water and the sky were both as blue, or rather more intensely blue than I have ever seen them in the tropics, and all the coast one mass of dazzlingly beautiful peaks of snow, which, when the sun approaches the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden, yellow and scarlet; and then to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfect unbroken column; one side jet black, the other giving back the colours of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind, and stretching many miles to leeward!”

The blubber rendering operation with its resulting plume replaces in the Boiling Blubber canvas the volcano in Hooker’s journal, and with this change the description of atmospheric effects seems to match.

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

The final two whaling canvases, however, are about more than lighting effects; they also have a narrative component. The Hurrah! painting (as we noted above) describes the processes of cutting in and baling the case. The painting shows the decapitated head of the sperm whale hoisted above the deck by a kind of windlass. (And it is distinctly a sperm whale as opposed to the right whale in #10.) The body of the whale lays on the side of the boat while the sailors cut at the layers of fat in order to unspool the blubber in one piece as the body rotates in the water (while sharks nip at the bleeding mass, according to Melville).  None of this requires any of the tools developed by the Industrial Revolution that began only a quarter of a century before Turner was born. No did the rendering of the fat in the Boiling Blubber painting. In fact, the entire Ross expedition of 1839-43 was somewhat pre-industrial—it was the last major British exploratory expedition undertaken wholly without steam power. But the second painting fits within Turner’s late depiction of technology, which as Turner saw it late in life involved dangerous blinding fire in the midst of darkness. This is how Turner depicted the casting of the bronze monument to the Duke of Wellington in The Hero of a Hundred Fights [#21], the only painting Turner exhibited in the Royal Academy’s show the following year. He would not submit any work thereafter. But that blasting light was also used by Turner in a series of religious and mythological paintings over the course of the next several years. The most striking of these, perhaps, is Angel Standing in the Sun [#22], which was exhibited at the same Royal Academy show as the second set of whaling pictures. The Angel of the Apocalypse in that painting (Revelations xix:17-18 is noted in the original catalogue) invites the fowl of the air to feast on the great men of earth.  The blinding light has come to signify the Fallacy of Hope itself. Was this perhaps the terror of a man facing his mortality? This peculiar form of Turner chiaroscuro appears around the time of Peace [#7], which commemorated the death of his friend, David Wilkie, an event that profoundly affected Turner.  However that might be, the Boiling Blubber painting is part of this group, pregnant, as it is, with incipient terror, for the ice-pack that is surrounding the ships could easily present mortal danger. Hooker explained how difficult it was to extricate from an ice pack which stranded the expedition from December 1841 to February 1842 (Richardson & Grey, pp. vii-vii). Captain Ross described the immense peril they were in when a storm struck while in the ice-pack in January 1842:

22, Angel standing in the Sun by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 425.)

“The storm reached its height at two p.m., when the barometer stood at 28-40 inches, and after that time began to rise. Although we had been forced many miles deeper into the pack, we could not perceive that the swell had at all subsided, our ships still rolling and groaning amidst the heavy fragments of crushing bergs, over which the ocean rolled its mountainous waves, throwing huge masses one upon another, and then again burying them deep beneath its foaming waters, dashing and grinding them together with fearful violence. The awful grandeur of such a scene can neither be imagined nor described, far less can the feelings of those who witnessed it be understood. Each of us secured our hold, waiting the issue with resignation to the will of Him who alone could preserve us, and bring us safely through this extreme danger; watching with breathless anxiety the effect of each succeeding collision, and the vibrations of the tottering masts, expecting every moment to see them give way without our having the power to make an effort to save them.”  (Ross, pp. 169-70.)

As it turned out, both Erebus and Terror had or were experiencing this very event at the time the second set of paintings were being exhibited at the Royal Academy, this time in the Arctic and this time with more formidable technology at their disposal. Both vessels had been refitted with steam engines to search for the illusive northwest passage. They were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845. It was later learned (in 1853, after Turner’s death, and confirmed in 1866) that the vessels were trapped by pack ice and abandoned by the crews, all members of which perished. All reprieve from the Fallacy of Hope is merely temporary.

A Melville Connection?

23. Title page of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale with note in Melville’s handwriting. volume from Houghton Library, Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Image from Melville’s Marginalia.

It is natural nowadays to associate Moby Dick with any reference to whales, sperm whales in particular. Given that Turner’s whaling paintings were shown in 1845 and 1846, and remained in his collection until his death in 1851 shortly after Moby Dick was published in London) and given that Melville visited London in 1849, the question is natural whether Melville ever saw the whaling paintings or any other oil by Turner, and if so, did it affect his writing?

There is the very slightest of documentary evidence. The only reference to Turner in Melville’s hand is a notation on the cover page of his copy of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which he bought in New York on July 10, 1850, on which he wrote: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.” [#23.] So before Melville finished the book, or even a substantial portion of the work, he knew of Turner’s Whalers. Did he see them? On that there is no direct evidence. His journal of his 1849 trip to England and Europe makes no mention of Turner, although he did visit many art collections. So how did he know about Turner? Well, we know (Sealts, p. 80) that his father-in-law had borrowed the second volume of Modern Painters from the Boston Anthenaeum and it was still outstanding when Melville visited him in July 1848. His friend and literary “agent” Evert Duyckinck had a complete set, and while there is written evidence that Melville freely borrowed books from Duyckinck, there is no evidence that Melville borrowed Ruskin from him.

But he had to know of Turner from somewhere, the marginalia on his Beale book shows that. So what did he know and what influence did it have on him? If you read Moby Dick with Turner’s works in mind, you find all sorts of parallels. I pointed out one a few days back. Harold Beaver in his notes to Penguin’s 1972 edition of Moby Dick identified Whalers (The Whale Ship) [#15] as the painting hanging in Spouter-Inn on which Ishmael expends much energy contemplating in chapter 3. Here is the passage:

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

Ishmael’s impression of the painting is much like contemporary critics’ reaction to the late Turner work, including the whaling pictures. What is particularly striking is the phrase “nameless yeast,” so similar it is unlikely to be a coincident that Ruskin uses the phrase “masses of accumulated yeast” to describe the “creamy foam” in Turner’s Snow Storm [#6], which is another plausible inspiration for the Spouter-Inn painting. (MP I:380-81.) But the problem comes when Ishmael finally resolves (at least for hiself) the import of the painting:

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The image, therefore, is more like the frontispiece of Beale’s book [#12] than any of Turner’s work. Moreover, what made the painting obscure, or indistinct and mysterious (as Ruskin refers to Turner’s work), is the accumulated smoke and grease of the inn, the effort of the artist. Finally, although Melville visited the National Gallery while in London in 1849, Snow Storm and the whaling paintings were in Turner’s gallery, which Melville makes no mention of in his journal, as Wallace points out (1991, p. 57).  On the other hand, Ruskin’s own writing provides more than enough basis for Turner’s imagined painting (which after all is not described with any degree of detail or analysis), and Ruskin’s footnote’s reference to Shakespeare’s “yesty waves” was itself enough to catch Melville’s attention, given his then current obsession with Shakespeare.

Still if you trace Melville’s work from Typee onward, you get the sense of a writer whose visual sense has greatly improved. So could any conclusions be drawn if someone systematically compared the writer and artist over time? Would any connections turn up?

24. Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1845. Tate, London. From the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks. (Turner Bequest CCCLVII 12.)

Fortunately Robert K. Wallace made the attempt, and he did so meticulously in Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992). Wallace is perhaps uniquely able to ferret out relations between art forms, having previously written studies on the relations between Jane Austen and Mozart and Emily Brontë. (I have read neither of these books; I merely note their existence and Wallace’s previous attempts to relate literature to other art forms.) He also, as demonstrated by his 1988 article  on the Antarctic source for Turner’s latter two whaling pictures showed that he has a talent for teasing out sources by mapping out possible relationships, both historical and literary. If anything, however, that piece also showed that he sometimes built possibility upon possibility to draw conclusions that go well beyond what the evidence supported and often what seemed plausible. His suggestions of the many layers of meaning to “Fish” in the title to the third whaler [#18], for example, seemed literary sleight of hand. It is too convoluted to repeat here, but suffice it to say: If Turner’s layered his title with so many different and interlocking meanings, he was a greater literary punster than James Joyce, nearly a century before Finnegans Wake. Another example from the article involves his “reading” of a watercolor sketch given the name Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne [#24]. Is the dark mass on the horizon a whale, rather than a vessel’s bow? If so, Wallace speculates that Turner saw a whale, and it stimulated his interest in painting the whaling pictures. But the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks probably date from after the 1845 Royal Academy show (Hokanson, p. 46 n.23), and so could not have been one of the inspirations. That speculation might have been enough for most scholars but Wallace sees a whale’s skeleton in the clouds and a weasel’s skull (!) attached to it. Why so? Well, it comports with the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius in Hamlet III:ii:368-73:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

What this speculation suggests is that Wallace is less interested in sources as bases for inspiration for a particular artist than sources as inspiration for critical comparisons. In other words, Wallace is seeking not what influenced an artist but rather what might have influenced him, evidently believing that the possibility is enough to enhance our understanding of the artist’s work. And that is how he proceeds in his very large (664 page) book.

On page 575 Wallace sets out the conclusion that Turner play the role of “Melville’s spiritual father” and that Moby Dick could not have been written “without England’s greatest modern painter in his mind’s eye.” This is a breathtaking conclusion, and unless the terms “spiritual” and “mind’s” mean to contradict what they modify (much like the legal term “constructive” does), there is simply nothing offeried in the way of proof for those propositions. After an introductory tour of Turner’s life and aesthetics, which he reduces to the term “indistinct,” relying heavily on Ruskin’s quote—”We never see anything clearly,” he proceeds to give a biography and then chronological tour of Melville’s work, closely keyed to Turner’s works that Melville had engravings of. These mainly come from the collection of the Berkshire Anthenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and all but one or two are known to have been acquired by Melville well after he wrote Moby Dick. Wallace scrutinizes the first five novels with an eye to anything Turnerian, and compares passages of Melville to work of Turner’s that Melville could not have seen at the time he wrote them. Before getting to Moby Dick, Wallace retraces Melville’s 1849 stay in London, and piles up the possibilities of what he could have discussed with those he met. He comes to the conclusion that Melville may have seen engravings of Turner and might have had in-depth conversations about Turner with others. But the fact is, there is no proof of any of this. When he delves into Moby Dick there is much imaginative legerdemain drawing connections between passages and plot points and Turner paintings. It is the kind of writing that would merit extreme praise in a freshman humanities seminar (“Gogol’s treatment of the father-son relationship is much like Homer’s in the Iliad …”). It is mostly interesting because it reveals how Wallace processed the two artists whom he clearly admires. It reminded me of the works of Peter Conrad. In other words, it is neither scholarship in any traditional sense nor literary-artistic criticism. Maybe it is postmodern criticism, a form in which the works are only useful in showing the connections which a particular reader-viewer can make in his mind.

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

After this detailed tour of fanciful connections, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Wallace makes too much of Turner’s influence, which could only have been indirect in any case. He oversells the premise by looking to Turner to the exclusion of other, more direct influences on Melville. But more importantly, I think he proceeds on incorrect assumption about the nature of Melville’s aesthetic in Moby Dick. Wallace, as I said, makes the case that Turner’s approach was to render the visual world “indistinct” in order to emphasize the sublime and possibly metaphysical realms. He relies on Ruskin for this, but Ruskin does not go as far as Wallace does. His discussion of “mystery” is really only about atmospheric perspective, in the paintings up to the mid-1830s. And Ruskin’s point is that Turner is rendering physical reality true to how we actually see it (because the atmosphere, depending on moisture content, makes distant objects more or less distinct compared to closer objects). His discussion on this point had nothing to do with the more abstracting effects of light and atmosphere and darkness that Turner explored in the last decade of his life. In fact, Ruskin expressly dismisses these later Turner works, including the whaling paintings. But whatever one makes of the merits of describing Turner’s artistic view as intended obscurity, that is decidedly not the approach of Melville in Moby Dick.

The narrator, Ishmael, tries in every way he can to explain everything. From his reasons for undertaking the voyage, appealing to the reader’s knowledge of psychology (chapter 1), to the variety of whales and how they relate to each other (chapter 32), the nature (including financing) of the industry, the obtaining and processing of the oil from chase to cleanup, to the anatomy of whales and to the extent known their behavior, social and otherwise. Ishmael goes to great length to explain things in meticulous detail and with precise language. His description of the whales’ heads (chapters 74 and 75), their skeleton (chapter 103) and fossils (chapter 104) owe considerably more to the style of Charles Darwin than to anything Turner ever painted. When he gives a list of the pictorial representations of whales that he has seen, he gives a comprehensive list (and Turner is not among them) and he then discusses their accuracy (chapters 56 and 57). Even when he tells a story, a fish story so to speak, for example the “Town-Ho’s Story” (chapter 54), he offers to swear an affidavit before a priest to its veracity. There is no attempt to pare down, to reduce to the minimum (as in Turner’s late oils on paper, e.g.Figures on a Beach, [#25]). Even as Ishmael grows to comprehend that physical reality seems to suggest metaphysical truths, Ishmael tries to explain each phenomenon as he understands it. There is no attempt to obscure anything. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the ultimate question: Is the universe run randomly or is there a malicious order behind it all? There may be no answer, but the question could not be clearer, and the evidence is laid before the reader much as a lawyer would before a jury.

Even with the laser-like focus on Turner that Wallace seems to have, it is nonetheless peculiar to suggest that Turner supplied Melville with the moral/metaphysical quest that is the heart of the story; Melville’s Calvinist mother was vastly more influential, let alone philosophers (like Schopenhauer) and anti-philosophers (like Carlyle). And what could Turner teach about the sea, about how it looked and the existential dread it represented? Turner never was on the deep ocean, even overnight. Could Turner’s canvases given any insight into the terror of Pip or even the visual aspect of the South Seas or night on the forecastle? Melville had experienced those things, and Turner had not. At best Turner learned of such things second hand, and yet, according to Wallace, he was supposed to have be “indispensable” to Melville, who actually experienced those things but only knew of Turner by repute or interpretation of others (who probably had only conventional opinions). And finally, the character of Ahab, and especially his final diatribe (chapter 132: “The Symphony”), are both clearly Shakespearian, and Melville in his correspondence was clear on how fundamental he saw Shakespeare’s works, and yet said nothing about Turner. The fact is that if Turner contributed to Melville’s thought process at all, it was not in essential ways.

So why do so many scholars and others (even casual viewers of Turner and museum curators) link the too? The answer is that maritime drama must draw on the same elements, whether in a story or a picture (and music too probably). When the two draw on these elements in their own way, we connect them, especially because they were contemporaries and their wolrd view was necessarily similar, even though they were innovative in their own fields. Turner would be the artist you would use to illustrate Moby Dick because he was attempting to break out of the confinement of Romanticism much as Melville was. If we were to listen carefuly to Berlioz or Wagner in connection with Moby Dick we would likely find similarities there as well, but less so since neither wrote expressly “maritime” dramatic music (except for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman). We are constitutionally designed to see patterns and trace connections; it’s part of our social equipment. Scholars develop these innate skills in peculiar ways and sometimes beyond what is useful, especially in these days when “inter-disciplinary” generates cachet in a way that analysis of the text itself does not.

None of this, however, should discourage you from seeing the canvases at the Met, before three of them are returned to the Tate and the story told by Turner (not an imagined one by Melville), in the manner of his groundbreaking final phase (which needs no connection with others, even one as significant as Melville), can not longer be seen in the way Turner originally conceived it.

Notes

1Ruskin tells the story of being startled on coming across a reference to Turner as a sea painter as early as 1832. (Dialecta, pp. 1-2. See n.* on p. 1). [Return to text.]

2Ruskin revised his opinion in Modern Paintings, describing the “most hopeless, desolate, uncontrasted greys …” as “of the very finest pieces of colour that have come from his hand.” And extolling the work as “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion,  mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner. Of course it was not understood; his finest works never are …” (MP I:381-82). [Return to text.]

3G.F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England. vol 2 (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 151, quoted by Ruskin in MP IV: 68. [Return to text.]

4Ruskin’s only reaction to the first two whaling paintings was: “Of the [Royal Academy] exhibition of 1845, I have only seen a small Venice, (still I believe in the artist’s possession,) and the two whaling subjects. … The Venice is a second-rate work, and the two others altogether unworthy of him.” (MP I:138.) [Return to text.]

5If you forgot the difference between the two types of whales, Melville meticulously explains the anatomy of both in Chapters 74 (“The Sperm Whale’s Head”) and 75 (“The Right Whale’s Head”) of Moby Dick. Throughout the novel, Ishmael shows some disdain for the fishing of right whales. [Return to text.]

6The full title of what is now commonly referred to as The Voyage of the Beagle was Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836 (London: Henry Colburn, 1840). [Return to text.]

7Turner provided page citations to Beale for the source of the two paintings exhibited in 1845, as we will see below. Melville purchased Beale on July 10, 1850 (Sealts, p. 40), a year and a half before Moby Dick was published. [Return to text.]

8In addition to Wreckers Bicknell bought five other paintings from Turner in one transaction in March 1844: Calder Bridge, Cumberland (1810) (BJ 106); Port Ruysdael (1827) (BJ 237), Palestrina—Composition (1828) (BJ 295), The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrenbreitstein) and Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’ (1835) (BJ 361) (although Turner did not allow delivery until 1845), and probably Ivy Bridge Mill, Devonshire (1812) (JB 122). Bicknell bought two others in 1844: Helvoetslus—the City of Utrecht, 64, going to Sea (1832) (JB 345); Van Goyen looking out for a Subject (1833) (BJ 350). Before 1844 Bicknell purchased Giudecca, la Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (1841) (BJ 391) at the Royal Academy show in 1841, and Campo Santo, Venice (1842) (BJ 397) at the Royal Academy show in 1842. After their estrangement in 1845, Bicknell continued to purchase Turner works but not directly from Turner: In 1851 he bought two paintings at a Christies sale: Grand Junction Canal at Southall Mall (1810) (BJ 101) and Saltash with Water Ferry (1812) (BJ 121). In 1865 Bicknell probably bought Off the Nore: Wind and Water (BJ 476) from a lot at a Christie’s sale. [Return to text.]

9“One point … it is incumbent upon me to notice, being no question of art but of material. … No picture of Turner’s is seen in perfection a month after it is painted. The Walhalla cracked before it had been eight days in the Academy rooms; the vermilions frequently lose lustre long before the exhibition is over; and when all the colors begin to get hard a year or two after the picture is painted, a painful deadness and opacity comes over them, the whites especially becoming lifeless, and many of the warmer passages settling into a hard valueless brown, even if the paint remains perfectly firm, which is far from being always the case. … It is true that the damage makes no further progress after the first year or two, and that even in its altered state the picture is always valuable and records its intention; but it is bitterly to be regretted that so great a painter should not leave a single work by which in succeeding ages he might be estimated. The fact of his using means so imperfect, together with that of his utter neglect of the pictures in his own gallery, are a phenomenon in human mind which appears to me utterly inexplicable; and both are without excuse.” (MP I:136 n.*.)  [Return to text.]

10According to Ruskin’s father (in a letter to Ruskin in September 1845) the other factor leading to the estrangement involved the engraving of The Fighting ‘Temeraire’: “[Bicknell] gave [Turner] 120 Gs for loan of Tameraire to engrave & Turner beside demands 50 proof. Bicknell resists and sends 8.” (JB 377.) [Return to text.]

11That William Jackson Hooker was a member of the Anthenæum Club, see Joseph Dalton Hooker, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker, K.H., D.C.L. Oxon., F.R.S., F.L.S., Etc.: Late Director of the Royal Gardens of Kew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [digital reproduction of original 1903 text]), p. lxxxvi. [Return to text.]

Sources

Beale, Thomas, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. To which is Added a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage (London: John van Voorst, 1839) (online at Google Books and Archive.org).

Brown, David Blayney, Turner in the Tate Collection (London: Tate Publishing, 2002).

Butlin, Martin and Joll, Evelyn, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, vol . 1 (2d ed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1984). [“BJ ___” refer to the catalogue number of the work in Butlin and Joll’s first volume, not the page number or the plate number of the work in volume 2.]

Gowing, Lawrence, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: Museum of Modern Art [1968]).

Grigsby, “Patina, Painting and Portentous Somethings,” Representations vol. 78, no. 1, pp. 140-44 (Spring 2002).

Hamilton, James, Turner: The Late Seascapes (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, c2003).

Hermann, Luke, “Turner and the Sea,” Turner Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-18 (Summer 1981).

Hokanson, Alison, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 4 (Spring 2016).

Joll, Evelyn, Butlin, Martin and Hermann, Luke (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) (specifically the articles on “Bicknell, Elhanan,” “Ruskin, John,” “Shakespeare, William,” and “Whaling”).

Mazis, Glen A., “‘Modern Depths,’ Painting, and the Novel: Turner, Melville, and the Interstices,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 70, no. 1/2, pp. 121-44 (Spring/Summer 1987).

Reynolds, Graham, “Turner”s Late Sky Studies,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 17-21 (New ork: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Richardson, John and Gray, John Edward, The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus & Terror, under the Command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, during the years 1839 to 1843. By authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, vol. I: Mammalia, Birds (London: E.W. Janson, 1844) (with “Summary of the Voyage” by Joseph Dalton Hooker (pp. iii-vii) (online at Archive.org).

Riding, Christine, Turner & the Sea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

Ross, James Clark, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-43, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1847) (online at Archive.org).

Ruskin, John, Dilecta: Correspondence, Diary Notes, and Extracts from Books Illustrating Præterita. (Orpington, Kent: G. Allen, 1886) (online at Hathi Trust).

Ruskin, John, Modern Painters, vols. I & IV (New York: John Wiley & Sons: 1886) (from Works of John Ruskin, “Popular Edition”) (a similar (unattributed) version, with the same pagination, is online at Project Gutenberg: References here are to  Volume 1 and Volume 4).  

Salander, Lawrence B., “Turner’s Necessity,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 13-15 (New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., Melville’s Reading: A Checklist of Books Owned and Borrowed (Madison: Universioty of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

Sutton, C.W., “Bicknell, Elhanan,” Dictionary of National  Biography ed. Leslie Stephen, vol. 5, pp. 9-10 (New York: Macmillen & Co., 1886) (online at Google Books).

Wallace, Robert K., “The Antarctic Sources for Turner’s 1846 Whaling Oils,” Turner Studies, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 20-31 (Summer 1988).

Wallace, Robert K., “Bulkington, J.M.W. Turner and ‘The Lee Shore,'” Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts ed. Christopher Sten (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), pp. 55-76.

Wallace, Robert K., Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, c1992).

Warrell, Ian, Turner’s Sketchbooks (London: Tate Publishing, 2014).

Wilton, Andrew, Turner and the Sublime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Ziff, Jerrold, “John Langhorne and Turner’s ‘Fallacies of Hope,'” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 27 (1964), pp. 340-342.

Rodoreda’s last novel: A haunting portrayal of a disordered world

We read certain novelists, like Dostoevsky and especially Dickens, relatively quickly, anticipating something astonishing around the corner. There are others, like Mercè Rodoreda, that one reads slowly, anticipating something astonishing in every paragraph.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona's 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC licennse at Flickr.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona’s 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC license at Flickr).

Rodoreda is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Catalan language. Her modernist novel La Plaça del Diamant (“Diamond Square” after a place in Barcelona), first published in English as The Time of the Doves (New York: Taplinger, ©1981), a woman’s growing understanding of love and life over two decades, has been acclaimed as the best fictional treatment of the Spanish Civil War in any language. All of her mature works, both novels and stories, are characterized by simple yet meticulously concise expression, making her one of the greatest stylists of any language.

It is therefore a major event that Open Letter, the press of the University of Rochester dedicated to new translations of literary works, publishes this month War, So Much War, a translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennant of Rodoreda’s Quanta, quanta guerra… the last novel published during Rodoreda’s lifetime (Barcelona: Club Editor, 1980). (Open Book first published in 2009 Death in Spring, a translation of the posthumously published and unfinished La mort i la primavera (Barcelona: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1997). In September, Open Letter came out with a paperback edition.) As for the newly translated novel, unlike many major events, this one does not disappoint expectations.

Her Life, in Brief

Rodoreda with her grandfather, Pere Gurguí, and bouquet of flowers. Photo from the collection of Carme Arnau.

Merc¡e Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi section of Barcelona (where the Diamond Plaza was located) at a time (October 1908) when modernity and tradition were vying for supremacy. This conflict took place in the fields of culture and politics. In culture Modernisme was temporarily defeated by Noucentisme but the dialectics of these opposites produced a synthesis which led to a modern Catalan nationalism. In politics, Barcelona (the largest center of industry in Spain) found both its bourgeois and working class interests unrepresented in parliament, where both the Conservatives and Liberals were captives of the land-holding classes. Not willing to admit other groups the two parliamentary parties managed elections and agreed to a rotation in office (el turno) and left it to the Army to manage dissent without interference by the civil authorities. In Barcelona anti-militarism, on the rise among the workers and the intelligentsia, especially after the loss of the empire in the war with the United States in 1898,  was met with open hostility on the part of the local barracks. The climax came a year after Rodoreda was born with the demonstrations against the Army’s call up for the Moroccan. The Army responded during the Tragic Week, la Setmana Tràgica in 1909, with an iron fist, and the civilian government supported the unauthorized repression by executing five protestors and sentencing 59 others to life for their opposition and supposedly participating in the violence that followed. This event proved the turning point for Catalonia, and the working class would now organize for serious confrontations, a pose that would last for nearly three decades until Franco’s forces permanently subdued the region and executed, imprisoned or expelled everyone associated with Catalan nationalism, socialism, anarchism and democracy.

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Magin Muria, Armand Obiols, Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amalia Casals, Agusti Bartra, Muria Anna and Anna Romero at Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Source: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Director Magí Murià, writer Armand Obiols, Mercè Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amàlia Casals (wife of Enric Cluselles), poet Agustí Bartra, writer Anna Murià and Anna Romaní at the Muria house, Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

According to Rodoreda’s elliptical memoirs, she was an unlikely participant (as activist or memorialist) in these struggles, growing impoverished and only receiving two years of formal education. But a recent examination of her childhood shows that it was less impoverished and disadvantaged than she suggested. In El paradís perdut de Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2015) (available since last month on Amazon, but only for Kindle and only in Catalan) Carme Arnau Faidella reconstructed Rodoreda’s childhood from unpublished letters and other memorabilia. She concludes that Mercè had a happy, somewhat Bohemian life. Her parents were devoted to the theater (both had taken classes at l’ Escola d’Art Dramàtic) and books. Her mother was fond of music as well. But she was especially fond of her maternal grandfather, Pere Gurguí, in whose house they lived. Gurguí was a journalist who had once been editor for the short-lived L’Arc de Sant Martí (“Rainbow”) and La Renaixença (“the Renaissance”), both conservative Catalan newspapers, which promoted the cultural identity of Catalans. Gurguí was dedicated to Catalonian history and culture and imparted his love to his granddaughter. He had been a friend of Jacint Verdaguer, poet and member of  the generation of Restoration of 1874, which led to La Renaixença, the rebirth of Catalan language and culture. Mercè remembered her grandfather telling her that a guardian angel watched over her, and occasionally those angels appear in her writing. He also read to her the works of Català, Ruyra and other Catalan modernists. The most important to him was Verdaguer.  In 1910, eight years after the poet’s death and two years after Mercè’s birth, Gurguí built a monument to Verdaguer in his garden,

“a hill of big stones, with pans of dirt in between, where rosemary plants and other typical Mediterranean plants grew, surrounded by a strip of pink cement that wound around the rocks and had the titles of Verdaguer’s main works engraved in it, El Canigó, L’Atlàntida, etc.” (from Images of Childhood.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d'Alacant.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d’Alacant.)

The garden and its flowers became a recurring figure in her writing especially after her exile. Almost as if flowers represented the Catalan culture they were associated with in the garden, flowers would spring up everywhere in her stories and novels. They could be symbols of love as in “Blood”: “My husband would say the dahlias were our children.” Disinterest in flowers could signal a breach in a relationship as in “Engaged”: “‘ I don’t understand your obsession with flowers. All that …’ he made a gesture with his head as if shaking off something that suddenly vexed him.” Flowers are sometimes provide subtle symbolism, as the bougainvillea in Isabel i Maria, a plant whose bracts imitate flower petals and in the story reflects the duplicity between the characters. But mostly flowers represented home, especially in exile. As Rodoreda herself said (in the preface to Mirall trencat (Broken Mirror) Rodoreda explained why she made a gardener and his garden the center of her novel Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea), the first novel after her exile: “Linked to flowers, without flowers for years, I felt the need to talk about flowers, and to make my main character a gardener.” Flowers therefore represented above all homesickness, which is probably why an idolized and innocent childhood is part of almost all her works. Arnau said that the nostalgia for a lost childhood is always contrasted with adult hypocrisy and corruption.

Her own childhood paradise came abrupt to an end when she was 20. After her grandfather’s death, evidently her uncle, her mother’s brother, who had been in the Americas to make his fortune, sent stipends to her family to keep it afloat. When he returned, he married Mercè. A year later she had a son. Her marriage and domestic life made her miserable. She chose to escape the life she seemed destined for by means of journalism and then through novels.By 1936 she had published her fourth novel. The the Civil War came. Barcelona, which had already been a center of great intellectual and artistic activity under the Second Republic, as well as one vastly more liberal when it came to the place of women in society, became one of the strongest centers of loyalist resistance to Franco. The eventual victory of fascism in Spain was a calamity of historic proportions, not only putting the resisters in physical danger but also bringing about a spiritual and cultural disaster much like the Saints experienced when Charles II was restored, or the proletariat in Paris in 1849 or the partisans in France only a few years after the defeat of the Spanish Republic.

When the civil war began the great liberal experiment of the Second Republic with its benefits for intellectual women, for Catalans and for many others came to an end with the victory of Franco’s fascist army. Catalonia, one of the centers of loyalist defense of the Republic (and more significantly from the rightist point of view, one of the most advance workers’ movements ever undertaken), felt the heel of repression. Though not technically banned, the local forces suppressed Catalan in many ways, including signs that said: “Don’t bark, speak Spanish!”

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda escaped repression and her family in well fell swoop. She left behind her son as well as her husband. She lived from 1939 to the Nazi occupation in Roissy-en-Brie, a small commune in the Île-de-France region east of Paris. She was doubly exiled: away from her country, but also because of the suppression of Catalan by the Falangists, exiled from her native tongue, and therefore from writing. In 1938 she had written Aloma, according to Pope dealt with “the violence of society, the degrading routine of marriage, the dangers of romantic delusions, the repression of the body, and the exploitation and abuse of women.” In France Rodoreda would meet writer Armand Obiols, with whom she would live until his death in 1971.

Obiols would offer extensive editorial advice to Rodoreda and her work thereafter became what made her internationally famous: objective, dispassionate, sparse and concrete. Pope showed, for example, how the influence of Obiols changed the narrative tone of Aloma between the time it was first published (before he knew her) and the 1969 edition. For years there were rumors that Obiols wrote her books, a charge that she told Castellet was “stupidity” (una bestiesa). As proof she said that most of her books were “women’s books” and men know nothing about women.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut s'Estudis de Catalan.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut d’Estudis Catalans.

In France Rodoreda did not complete any writing. She supported herself by sewing. When she fled the Nazi she moved to Switzerland. There she took up painting. Over 80 of her watercolors, gouaches and collages are held by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 30 of which were exhibited at Barcelona’s La Pedrera in 2008 during the centenary of her birth. They were stark portraits of women (mostly) with expressions of wonderment and silence.This would become a characteristic of her narrators when she took up writing in earnest again in 1958.

Her Writing, Briefly

Rodoreda’s writing spanned the styles of the twentieth century beginning with psychological realism, to modernist interior explorations to a unique form of fantastic realism. But in all these styles the narrative approach was much the same. The protagonist/narrator was usually a women of lower socio-economic status. José Ortega says that this helps contribute to her ingenuísmo. The nature of the narrative voice is unique, and the effect at first is hard to pinpoint. Scarlett points out that unlike most first person narrators the narration is almost exclusively testimonial and not confessional. Moreover, Restina says that by shutting off the “intellectual function” the narration achieves a descriptive power making the things observed more “real” and “concrete.”

Because there is no “intellectual filter” between the narrator and the reader the narration gives the effect of the kind of writing André Breton described as “pure psychic automatism.” The surrealist techniques of Rodoreda are anything but subliminal. Her “disorientation, random association and misogyny” in The Time of the Doves (as Everly points out) have specific and quite precise narrative functions. But beyond the surrealistic technique, the oddities that permeate her stories (especially the later ones) create what Garcia Marquez called an  “atmosphere”  from which her revelations take place. And the last novel, War, So Much War is the culmination of her experiments in this regard.

In 1973, with Franco turning over his role as head of government to Carrero Blanco, Rodereda returned to Catalonia where she would live until her death in 1983. Franco was in ill health for much of the time after her return, and he died in 1975.  Perhaps his death made partisanship reside in her last novel, published in 1980, because no sides are expressly identified. (It is possible to surmise, however, that the narrator belongs to the loyalist militia, given how the enemy has airplanes and repeatedly bombs civilians.) The novel is not so much about a war, as it is that the war is the thing that makes everything else the way it is.

War, So Much War

war, so much warRodoreda’s last novel is a story told (or experienced for the most part) by Adrià Guinart, a young man who goes to war to escape his mother and see the world. But he soon regrets his decision to fight and he runs away when he can. Although unlike almost all other works by Rodoreda the narrator is male, his youth (he is barely past puberty) and his conduct make his gender ambiguous. When he was young and taken to school for the first time, Father Sebastià told his mother that they did not admit girls. The priest soon found him to be a “veritable archangel” and had his desk placed next to his own.

We know very little about his childhood but what we are told is told lyrically and so we seem to get a full sense of him. He evidently loved his father dearly, and his time with him is described tenderly: “On the Sundays when my father wasn’t of a mind to visit his cousins, he would take me for a walk. We spent hours sitting by the side of the road, and sometimes the air winnowed threads from the hearts of stunted flowers, and some would catch in my clothes.” His father, a railroad engineer, was haunted by a ghost—a man who would walk on the tracks, causing his father to screech the train to a halt, but in the examination later, no trace of the man would be found, and he received criticism. On the third time, he closed his eyes when the man refused to leave the tracks, and he felt bones being crushed when the train passed over him. The father died shortly after that experience, when Adrià was 11.

Adrià had a birthmark on his forehead, and when angry his mother told him it he reminded her of Cain. She raised carnations for sale near the train line, where trains could be heard all night from the house. The house had a yellow rose bush growing up its side. He grew to find the house suffocating, and began escaping from night to dawn. Then when he was 15, the war gave him an excuse to leave, and he went with his friend Rossend to join the fighting.

Adrià was not meant to fight, and they put him to work in the kitchen. Still he deserts. He can’t defend himself even when forced to fight and suffers severe beatings as a result. Even when they attempt to teach him to first a rifle, he refuses to learn, purposely aiming wide, because he had no interest in killing. (In fact the only two people he strikes are women: the miller’s wife, when she tries to seduce him and the old woman in the woods, when she discloses her vile acts.) His escapes are often fortuitous, often by deus ex machina. But his story is not about war directly. In fact, Rodoreda says in the prologue that the novel is not an account of war in terms of weapons but rather an internalized ordeal of disruption displacement and dead bodies. And most of the takes place outside the war zone but still where the state of war has untethered all bonds of normal morality and traditional attachments. The people Adrià meets live solipsistically in a world that offers nothing beyond their self-interest.

It is unfortunate that the Open Letter edition does not contain Rodoreda’s prologue, because it gives a good perspective on what she was trying to achieve. She says that the story was inspired by the 1965 Polish movie The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie), a movie directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965. The film is based on a novel of the same title (and subtitled “A Collection of Weird Tales”) by Count Jon Potocki published a century and a half previously (and released by Orion Press in 1960 in an English translation by Elizabeth Abbot). Both the movie and book begin with a battle in Saragossa, Spain, where an invading soldier, entering an abandoned building discovers and becomes engrossed by a manuscript and while reading it is captured by Spanish soldiers. He gets his captures to translate the story and the film proceeds mis en abîme fashion with the captive and the soldiers playing out the scenes in the manuscript. The main character (the prisoner) becomes the captain of the Walloon guards under the King of Spain, and he sets off on various adventures to prove his courage and worthiness to during his travels through Spain. This 19th century Don Juan must pass numerous tests to prove his courage and worthiness. The witty and intricate interlocking of the stories influenced none other than Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The Polish novel it was based on may have had an equally distinguished literary influence. Rodoreda  says that her motivation was to create a story that experiences the world as poets do, “surprised at everything seen.” And while the novel and the film contain several symbolic images in common (eyes, hanged men, sleeping next to dead bodies) and while the protagonist in both is more a witness than actor, the novel is unlike the film. While the film is the unfolding of a gothic story, Rodoreda’s novel is a metaphysical exploration undertaken by one who has no experience in the world or in philosophy and therefore learns as he goes along.

The world Adrià wanders is fantastical, nightmarish and insubstantial, and his deep unconscious soul reverberates with what he sees. His experiences are sometimes no more than fleeting encounters, such as when, shortly after his first desertion he sees a boy in this distance about is age while artillery is being fired. The boy points to the direction of the cannon sound and shouts “Go home,” then disappears. Other encounters amount to complete episodes with conflict and resolution and then the need for Adria to move on. All of the encounters seem at first unrelated, except by subtly related symbols. For example a girl he falls in love with asks “out of the blue” whether he liked soap bubbles. She said: “The best thing about them was that, after one has waited so patiently to see them emerge from the tip of the reed and admire their iridescence, they burst while floating away as if they had been pricked.” He love her because she is unafraid, because she is independent, because it pained her to think of him dead and because she wants no one to follow her. Rather than have her reject him, he lets her go. Once gone, however, he decides he needs her and sets out to find her. Along the way the symbol returns. One night he fell asleep with uncommon peace and dreamed: “a boy who looked like me was blowing soap bubbles with a cane he periodically dipped in a tin can; the bubbles hovered over a drowned girl whose body was being swept in and out by the waves. … Many of the bubbles turned into human heads  that floated upward gazing at the sky. … Death, with green teeth, sat on the belly of a cloud. Seven women with feet of gold huddled together blowing seven long trumpets that spewed bubbles into the sea, while death’s scythe awaited th order to begin reaping the floating heads …” His encounter at last with the girl provides the climax of the novel, it follows with the most fantastical elaboration on the symbol.

Despite the disorder, the horror and the fantastic of an unrecognizable world Adrià is constantly befriended by strangers who offer him unsolicited charity at crucial moments. Perhaps it is because he is young, or has blond hair, or looks like a girl or, as old woman who feeds him says, “those helpless creature eyes of yours.” Or maybe they recognize as disoriented by the world being out of joint as they are. Even nature reflects the disorder of the times. When Adria sees a meteor shower for the first time, the old man watching with him says: “The stars are weeping because we are at war.”

Even when war is far distant, the people Adria meets seemed hollowed out, or maybe it is just that with everyone looking after himself those who would be hollowed out whether or not there was war are now understandable. In the longest episode in the book Adria lives with a man who has a house, income and books. Unlike most, he doesn’t need to scramble for food, or indeed to do anything but contemplate. He goes to the sea at night to think quietly.  His library is filled with mystical philosophy, which he practices by means of a mirror. When he dies Adri¡a reads his papers and learns of his discovery, one that involves a vision that haunts Adrià and a discovery that earns him nothing but hostility in the future.

The adventures that Adrià experiences are enough to earn the description “weird tales” but they are not gothic like Potocki’s are. In fact, their weirdness stems from their surreal nature in the literal sense of the term as above real or extra real. Everything that happens is strange only when we think of the world as normal and ordinary. But it is only ordinary when we stop examining the strangeness of it, the incompatibility of everyone’s selfish motives. Perhaps war is simply the metaphor for that incompatibility. And even those who want nothing more than to be ordinary (like the bricklayer whose house and wife are destroyed by the lone airplane on dropping a single bomb or the mother who amid all the corpses refuses to believe her baby is dead) can’t escape the immense incompatibility of others. Adrià’s travels, his quest, when he is forced to articulate it, is an expression of his need to see all the oddity in the world, to express his own selfish interests: “[T]he only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it.” The generous man who wants him to quit his journeys, to stay and be his son, understands and pats him on his back: “… but the moment will come when you have a false life on your hands. You, what do you have inside? A garden or an inferno?” They discuss what it means to be Cain and the old man says: “… whenever you want to go, just go. Don’t say anything. I don’t like goodbyes.”

The novel races to its end. It is not a picaresque with a satisfying moral. Rather, like all great literature it ends with hard truth about the disparity between our desires and our possible attainments. It woud be almost unbearable but for the poetic telling, lyrical enough to soften the blow.

Sources

Carme Arnau, Introducció a la narrativa de Mercè Rodoreda: El mite de la infantesa (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1976).

Emelie L. Bergmann, “Flowers at the North Pole: Mercè Rodoreda and the Female Imagination in Exile,” Catalan Review 2:83-99 (1987).

J.M. Castellet, “Mercè Rodoreda,” Êls escenaris de la memòria (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1988).

Kathryn A. Everly, Catalan Women Writers and Artists: Revisionist Views from a Feminist Space (Lewisburg, [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press, ©2003).

Josefina Gonzalez, “Verbal Absences and Visual Silences in Quanta, quanta guerra …La mort i la primavera, and Isabel i Maria,” in Voices and Visions: The Words and Works of Mercè Rodoreda edited by Kathleen McNerney (Selinsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1999).

José Ortega, “Mujer, guerra, y neurosis in dos novelas de M. Rodoreda (La plaza de Diamante y La calle de las Camelias“) in Novelistas femeninas de la postguerra española, ed. Janet W. Perez (Madrid: Porrúa, 1983).

Randolph D. Pope, “Aloma‘s Two Faces and the Chacter of Her True Nature,’ in The Garden across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction ed. Kathleen McNerney & Mancy Vosburg (Selingsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1994).

Joan Ramon Resina, “The Link in Consciousness: Time and Community in Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant,” Catalan Review 2:22-46 (1987).

Elizabeth A. Scarlett, Under Construction: The Body in Spanish Novels (Charlottesville [Va.]: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

T.S. Eliot’s innate lyricism: “A Lyric” (or “A Song”)

T.S. Eliot at 13 reading Shakespeare. Oil on canvas by sister Charlotte Eliot {later Smith} c 1900-01.

Before looking at any of his more mature works, it’s worth noting that T.S. Eliot showed signs of lyrical talent from relatively early on.

This entry should therefore be considered an addendum to the earlier post on Eliot so that no one concludes that Eliot’s poetry solely derived from a neurotic maladjustments and rather tawdry prejudices.

Eliot’s mother, of course, spent much of her own time writing religious verse. She had been educated in and later taught at private schools. She even taught for a while at Antioch College. Her life-long aspiration to be a serious writer were never fulfilled, even though some of her poems were published in the Christian Register. She proved to be a very powerful influence on Eliot for good and ill. He adopted her preferred medium for creative outlet, but rejected her pat, bloodless Midwestern Episcopal outlook. For a while he would replace it with medieval Catholicism. He would eventually settle on the Anglican Church, which combined the very form of his Protestant upbringing with a connection to monarchism, which appealed to his ultra conservative world view.

Eliot also rejected the beliefs in civic duty and social progress that his minister grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, stood for. (Eliot’s feelings in this regard were complicated by his mother’s. Charlotte C. Eliot so revered her father-in-law that she wrote his biography, which Houghton, Mifflin, published in 1904. Eliot never met his grandfather.) Eliot’s grandfather must have cast a large shadow; Dickens, who met him during his American tour, describes him in his American Notes (1842) as “a gentleman of great worth and excellence.” Eliot would spend his secondary school days in the boys school that his grandfather founded in St. Louis, Smith Academy. It was here, during his senior year, that he wrote his oldest surviving poem.

It was written as a school exercise and graded by his teacher, English master Roger Conant Hatch. The poem earned an “A.” Eliot later wrote J.H. August that Hatch had “conceived great hopes of a literary career for me” (August 19, 1943 in John Hayward (ed.), Poems Written in Early Youth by T.S. Eliot (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux: c1967).

Eliot told his second wife, Valerie Eliot (who like his first wife was devoted to his writing but was self-effacing but unlike Valerie merged her identity into his), that he wrote certain verses when he was “nine or ten” about his sadness on returning to school each Monday. When he was fourteen, in the thrall of the Rubáiyátid, he wrote “some very gloomy quatrains” (id. at v). None of these have been found.

The untitled piece for Master Hatch imitated a form used by Ben Jonson. It also reflected his sensibilities and wit (particularly in the rhyme scheme). In a talk he gave on June 9, 1953, at Washington University in St. Louis (a school co-founded by his grandfather, who was also its chancellor for the 17 years before his death), Eliot remembered fondly his teachers at Smith Academy, which he then claimed was the “most important part” of his education. As for his poem, he said that Mr. Hatch “commended [it] warmly” while “at the same time asking me suspiciously if I had any help in writing it.” (This undoubtedly produced the kind of warm, knowing chuckle that a worshipful audience always gives a great man). T.S. Eliot, To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (Univ. Nebraska Press: 1991), p 45.

He didn’t show his parents a copy of the published poem. Nevertheless his mother obtained a copy of the Smith Academy Record. She told Eliot (as related to Valerie) “that she thought it better than anything in verse she had ever written. I knew what her verse meant to her. We did not discuss the matter further.” Valerie Eliot (ed), The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume One 1898-1922 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: c1988), p 5 n.1.

Eliot would arrange for the publication of his mother’s dramatic poem “Savonarola” with his own introduction in 1926 (by R. Cobden-Sanderson, London). This act undoubtedly liquidated many debts.

The manuscript of the poem, in the handwriting of Eliot on ruled paper, is at King’s College, Cambridge and bears the unflattering record number “Doggerel License No. 3,271,574.” It is untitled but dated January 24, 1905. When it was published by the school in April, it was titled “A Lyric.”

Eliot recycled the poem for his college literary magazine, revising it sightly. The revision shows his attention to lyrical quality (and the maturing of his ear). It was published in 1907 under the title “Song.”

I set forth both versions below.

A Lyric

from the Smith Academy Record (April 4, 1905)

by T.S. Eliot

If Time and Space, as Sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The sun which does not feel decay
No greater is than we.
So why, Love, should we ever pray
To live a century?
The butterfly that lives a day
Has lived eternity.

The flowers I gave thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
So let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though our days of love be few
Yet let them be divine.

Song

from the Harvard Advocate (June 3, 1907)

by T.S. Eliot

If time and space, as sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
Though sages disagree.

The flowers I sent thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of life be few
Yet let them be divine.

No offense. He was just being racist.

You would think that the very least a Vatican emissary would be is diplomatic. After all, it’s not as though the Vatican has the power to determine who should be king anymore. It no longer mediates where the dividing line between Spanish and Portuguese possessions should lie. Hell, even most fascist parties don’t want the Vatican’s help anymore. So, since it doesn’t have any substance to worry about, shouldn’t whoever is in charge of the Vatican’s foreign affairs department be constantly emphasizing style or at least courtesy?

The British have been known to slaughter entire villages for violations of minor tea drinking rules. Fortunately, their well-known chivalry prevented them from killing Mary Cassatt for painting this Afternoon Tea.

That was why I assumed that the fluff up over Cardinal Walter Kasper was some sort of British over-reaction to some obscure 18th century custom that the British are particularly fond of bringing up just to embarrass you because you had never heard of it. Same thing with their accent. As if they know how to speak English better than you do! So I tried not to read about any of it (really, what would it accomplish?), but the BBC kept forcing it on me. After a quick read, all I knew was that His Eminence was declining to visit the UK after he said that arriving at Heathrow Airport was like landing in a Third World country.

In some countries things like this are used to buy items like mangos or umbrellas. No one has any idea, however, what such a thing is worth because it doesn't have "dollars" or "cents" written on it anywhere.

Now, I’ve landed in Third World countries more than enough times that I thought I knew what he had on his mind. Maybe the absurd security. The lines. The forms that smell of mimeograph paper because they don’t have any Xerox™ machines. He was probably not referring to teenage soldiers in combat fatigues with automatic weapons everywhere you look; British security is not that heavy-handed. He could have been referring to the thing that irks me the most: having to exchange your money for some contemptible currency that you don’t understand just so taxicab drivers can rip you off. I don’t care if the paper does have an engraving of the Queen on it; you cannot convince me that anyone really knows how many half-farthings are in a shilling or what a crown is. This inexplicable “money” system they have is really why there were so many poor people in Dickens’ day.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his job as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is forced to visit one damn Third World Country after another. Let this be a lesson to you, kiddies: Don't drop out of school! And don't do drugs either!

I didn’t think any of that warranted making up an excuse not to go to the UK, however. Especially an excuse like “My gout is acting up!” In fact, if he really did have the gout, going to the UK would be the best thing that could ever have happened to him. In England there is none of that rich food that the bigwigs in the Vatican chow down on. In fact, you generally have to eat Indian or Thai or Chinese or some other kind of non-English food because British cuisine (if you can call it that) is so dreadful. So it really is just like being in some Third World country with your chopsticks and looking for potable water, right?

Then I heard the whole story about how British Airways a while back would not allow a stewardess to wear a crucifix on duty. This seemed to bother His Eminence, even though British Airways no longer has the rule. But he apparently said: “You are discriminated against when you wear a cross on British Airways.” I had heard that one time he was boarding a BA plane and once inside he saw all the stewardesses start whispering to each other. They made him stow his suitcase under the seat in front of him rather than in the overhead compartment like they allowed all the Protestants. They even announced before takeoff that all rosaries had to be stowed so as not to create a risk of strangulation in the event of an emergency landing. I’m pretty sure, though, they did that all in good fun simply to make him feel comfortable.

But even if he was offended by that, aren’t there other carriers that fly into London? I’m pretty sure he could use the Internet to look up the schedule for Lufthansa. Or if he happened to be outside of Germany at the time, he might try Alitalia. He could even go to France and take the Chunnel. Oh, but that French food would probably be bad for his gout.

Then I read the BBC account. If it is true, the issue wasn’t about some fun-loving British stewardesses. It turns out that he told a German magazine that the UK was marked by “a new and aggressive atheism.” OK. But I’m not really sure why anyone would be offended by that. Don’t American preachers say that all the time? In the South they say it about the church across the street. They say it about any public school that teaches biology. They’ve said it about every good university in the country for as long as I can remember. The Republican Party says it about the Democrats all the time. So I think there must be something more to this story.

German Catholics have long resented what the Reformation required them to do to Protestants.

The fact that the Vatican got so embarrassed about this suggests to me that this German cardinal, close adviser to the German Pope, had inadvertently disclosed a subject that he and the Pope talk about secretly all the time. They probably harbor a deep resentment against the British. But over what? Deposing James II? How Henry II treated Thomas Becket? Supporting the Protestants against the Holy Roman Emperor? Catherine of Aragon? Siding with Poland in 1939? Whatever it is, the Church felt it best to keep the Cardinal at home and not stir up things, figuring that it could probably not expect help from the Spanish Armada and the French would probably not again expel the Huguenots on command in the event the diplomatic squabble between the Holy See and Her Britannic Majesty took an ugly turn.

So the Vatican tried to put a positive spin on it. He didn’t mean anything offensive by the remark about the Third World, “various sources” told the BBC: “They also said his ‘Third World’ comment referred to the UK’s multicultural society.” No offense there. He wasn’t saying that every Brit was a goddam Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens spewing out hate and evolution and demanding that every priest who ever buggered some choir boy go to jail. No. He was just saying that the number of dark-skinned people in London naturally made a good German cardinal a little uncomfortable. Like as though he were in Chad or Somalia or some other God-forsaken Third World country. See? Now I really feel foolish wasting my time over something with such a simple, reasonable explanation.