Friday, January 23, 2009

Have Fun in the 1950s

Learning to Set the Table in Home Economics, February 16,1957

Jenny Wren called my attention to this fun blog, 50s Times. It is a fascinating read, including the author's musings on the unexpected gratification she found in keeping her home well--that is, spending 1950s kind of time on it to meet 1950s housekeeping standards. Happy reading!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On the Passing of Andrew Wyeth

Painter Andrew Wyeth died January 16 in his sleep in his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91. I remember in the early 1960s, when Wyeth's painting came to the fore and my mother hung four of them in our living room. We lived near Chadds Ford and were very proud of him as a painter for that reason alone. Newspaper accounts of his life since his death two days ago indicate that he was derided by the reigning New York art world for his attachment to realism, whereas they reveled in iconoclasm or in iconoclastic iconism (Warhol et al.). Wyeth worked primarily in watercolor and tempera, and his paintings often seem to have a quality of layering of light.

His was a painting of subtraction. Stating that his thought was abstract, Wyeth told an interviewer, "I've often said, 'If I was really good, I could have done the field in Christina's World without her in there.' The less you have in a subject, the better the picture is, really." I think that practice of subtraction is also what makes it difficult to imagine the framing of Wyeth's paintings. Framing and matting would seem to intrude on the contemplative mood of most of his painting with a rude tap on the shoulder.

For the Washington Post, Henry Allen and Bart Barnes wrote yesterday:
In a review of a 1996 show, one of us asked: "Why does the railing curve away from us while the floorboards of the deck proceed straight as a ruler? And how can a white chair in shadow be as white as a white rail in sunlight?"
But more important, Wyeth was loved, admired, defended and respected by countless Americans not because of either his realism or his abstraction but because of the way he made us feel.
He didn't take us back to Eden, in the manner of Renaissance pastoralists, he took us back to the moment of exile from Eden, the excruciating poignancy of the moment mankind came to know death. The fruits of Paradise are gone, the trees are bare ruined choirs, the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing as Shakespeare and Keats wrote in evoking the same feelings.
For all his realism, the America he shows is dead and gone, "lost and by the wind grieved," as Thomas Wolfe put it.

Wyeth's audience finds its identity in Britain and a lost agrarian past. Modernists find it in cities and the Continent. He appeals to the sort of people who take pride in loss, as shown in his paintings where snow blows over the dead land with the glamour of some kind of aftermath. He pairs grief with a celebration of innocence.
Wyeth makes us the main character in any painting, in part because there are so few people in his work. By contrast, Norman Rockwell, another realist lambasted by critics, makes us spectators at a gala show. Rockwell celebrates the community; Wyeth puts the individual at center stage, even when that individual is only an unseen viewer, which is to say us, alone as our Puritan ancestors brooding on their souls.
We admire and crave the tradition and continuity that the whole Wyeth family has shown in its works and lives. But Andrew Wyeth forces us to go back and back to loss, however painful, in the manner of tongues seeking a sore tooth. He shares a sense of tragedy that is especially common among old English stock like himself. People are grateful to him for reassuring them that their nostalgias, fantasies and would-be realities are real.
Has anyone done what he did, and done it better?

I find this to be a kind of literalist approach to Wyeth's painting, as if the subject of a poem were the words. The power of Wyeth's work, which was embraced by the American people, is its poetry, which lifts us out of time to something more mysterious and eternal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hats Off to Nicola Beauman and Persephone Books

I think of Nicola Beauman, the founder and owner of Persephone Books, as a treasure seeker who has struck it rich. Her own appraisal of women's literature in the first half of the 20th century A Very Great Profession tells the story of her immersion in the works of women novelists, mostly for women and mostly by British women, which, without her intervention in republishing them through her Persephone Books company, would be completely forgotten.

The fascinating question arose to Ms. Beauman: What were the housewifely ladies, such as the heroine of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter, reading when they were riding on the train to town for shopping? She surveys many of the books that they may have been reading--many of them bestsellers in their day--and how they shed light on the questions that were occupying women in the period of say, 1910 through to 1950. Reading these books is thus a fascinating study of our mothers and our grandmothers.

Not many of the authors whose writings are now again in print thanks to Persephone Books have books that are available in my (very good) local library. I have had to hunt them down in various used books sites online. But when I heard that Nicola Beauman, after several years in the business, was just beginning to think about paying a salary to herself, I have tried to patronize the more expensive option of buying Persephone Books.

The fact is that despite feminist efforts, often the books of women authors--unless they stick to masculine concerns, as most feminists do--are not appreciated in the longer term. Books that deal with family from the standpoint of the woman who tries to hold it together (We Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, for example) do not seem to hold their own to become classics.

These women won the Pulitzer Prize for the American novel in the years 1918 to 1947:
1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1924: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson
1925: So Big by Edna Ferber
1929: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin
1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes
1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1934: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller
1935: Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson
1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1939: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1942: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

Of these authors, I know only Edith Wharton, Willa Cather (but not this book), Edna Ferber, Pearl Buck, Margaret Mitchell, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Otherwise, I have no idea who these ladies are or what they wrote.

Then there is Susan Glaspell, author of the wonderful short story "Jury of Her Peers," who wrote plays that were considered on a par with those of Eugene O'Neill, plus eight novels, whose name is not found in the catalogue of my local library. Persephone Books is playing a role in resurrecting the work of this very astute American.

Therefore, as you are willing and able, I urge you to support Persephone Books. Ms. Beauman's fascinating catalogue is worth a read in itself to know about the stories we never would hear about otherwise. You can read more about Persephone books here and here. Happy reading to you!

P.S. I learned about Persephone Books from Jane Brocket, whose literary adventures I enjoy reading about.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Profile in Courage

I recommend Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary 1913-1917 by Vera Brittain to all, especially to young women. Brittain wrote a novel based on her diaries, Testament of Youth, which was made into a highly acclaimed BBC movie of the same name.In their spontaneity, freshness, depth of thought and emotion, her diaries represent a unique document of the life if young people in Britain at the brink of World War I and how in 1914 their lives were dramatically disrupted and changed "in the twinkling of an eye."

As she writes on August 25, 1914, "Truly, we of this generation are born to a youth very different from anything we even supposed or imagined for ourselves. Trouble and disasters are menacing us the nature of which we cannot even guess at."

And again on September 3, "It is so strange how the very fact of going to transformed by the same grey despondent mist that alters everything now. Despondent is not quite the word for we are too proud to be really that. So it seems that sad word, 'joy,' must be banished from our vocabularies, and that if it is ever reinstated, it will be sadder than ever because of the toll of our lives that will have paid for it. This is no longer a time to see how much enjoyment one can get out of life, but to see how much courage and strength one can give to it. Not self-satisfaction, but self-sacrifice is the order of the day... There are only two things possible now--to act when that can be done--and to endure--to endure grief and disappointment with patience and courage, and with a brave cheerfulness which will make other people's burdens seem more bearable to them."

Brittain left Oxford and became a nurse until the war's end.

Edward Brittain, Vera's brother, Roland Leighton, her fiance, and close friend, Victor Richardson--all killed in the war.

At the time that she wrote these diaries, Brittain knew that she wanted to be a writer and they were for her an explicitly literary outlet. This does not detract from their truth, but only makes her record more vivid. Miss Brittain was a top honors student all of her young life, as were her friends, both male and female. In numbers of ways, her diary stunningly highlights the paucity of the culture of many youth today. She tells how she fell in love with Roland Leighton and their deep love for each other--although they kissed only once--far different than the sex-drenched but loveless relationships many young people experience today. You can read some of their letters online.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Are We Still Neighbors?

Fastidiousness can be hard on children...

This is the question that sadly came to my mind, when I read The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield. First published in 1924 and reprinted by Persephone Books, the novel concerns a fastidious housekeeper, Mrs. Knapp, who has three children, one of them unruly. She is praised by one and all for her spotless home, nutritious meals, clean children, and style, but she and her family are unhappy.

Her husband has a poetic nature and does poorly as a store clerk in the town dry goods store. On the day that he is fired from his job and contemplating his total worthlessness, he has a serious accident while helping a neighbor put out a house fire and permanently loses the use of his legs.

Living before the days of the New Deal or the Great Society as they do, the Knapps have to fend for themselves. Mrs. Knapp seeks employment and finds a job as a clerk in the same store that had employed her husband. Her style, dress, courtesy, and attention soon make her the top clerk, and a happier Mrs. Knapp soon becomes a manager.

Mr. Knapp, meanwhile, begins to emerge from his mental depression and take charge of his children, advising them from his bed downstairs on how to get out of the house and off to school, helping them with their homework, and making fatherly contact with his youngest rascal who begins to calm down under his father's attention. The Knapps are a happier family than at the book's opening.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: quite a lady

As a story, I found the plot a bit didactic. However, as a glimpse into the world of the first quarter of the last century, The Homemaker is interesting--especially in its depiction of the generosity of neighbors and friends when the Knapps are in greatest need.

Several weeks after Mr. Knapp's accident, "When the sick man began to improve... there were hours when the round of neighbors and helpers thinned out, when he was left in his bed in the dining room, a glass of water, a book, something to eat and the desk-telephone on a table by his side, with instructions to telephone if he needed anything.
"Don't you hesitate a minute now, Mr. Knapp," said old Mrs. Hennessy heartily; "if it's no more than to put a shovelful of coal on the kitchen fire, you call 14 ring 32 and I'll be right over."
"And when Stephen gets to acting up, just shake the window curtain real hard and I'll drop everything to come over and settle him," said Mrs. Anderson zestfully.

Later, the oldest of the children, Helen, explains to her aunt, how they have survived: "Oh, we manage all right. Father and us children keep the house.... He's able to be up in a wheelchair now. The janitor of the store's old father had a wheelchair and they didn't sell it after he died and it was up attic and he brought it to Father. He said Father had helped him out at the store when his little boy was sick. Oh, lots of folks from the store have come to help out. The delivery driver, he said he couldn't ever forget what Father did for him one time. He won't tell what it was because he's ashamed. Only he wanted to help out, too, and as long as we had to have a furnace fire he came in every morning and night to look out for the furnace. And he steps in daytimes now, when he's going by, to see if everything is all right. And old Mrs. Hennessy, she's the cleaning woman, she kept coming all the time to help and bring in things to eat, pies, you know! She came in nights and mornings when Father was so bad to do up the work and wouldn't take any pay for it."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year, Everyone!

May the New Year bring us peace.

Magpie, by Claude Monet, 1868-69.