Friday, July 22, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: It's Summer!

A Clambake.

(As always, click on the painting to see it in a larger size.)

The spirit of summer--fun!--led to me thinking about Winslow Homer's watercolors of children. In 1873, Homer went to live in the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and began his forays into watercolors, painting of children, in quick strokes, in the Gloucester environs during the summer. Boys are out of school and seeking fun--boating, hunting, playing games, and watching the shoreline. When they're hungry, they dig clams, collect wood, build a fire, and have a clambake. They seem totally at ease in their pursuits, even in occasional boredom or rest on a rock. Undoubtedly, they did not have to be urged by their mothers to go outside, since outside is their preferred habitat--outside to freedom and conspiracy with confreres. Some of these boys are undoubtedly the sons of fishermen; others might be here on vacation. We know that at night they go home to their mothers, their dinners, and their beds, but out here they assume an air of self-sufficiency and self-confidence.

Toys are at a minimum, and there's no playground in sight. Here some boys fashion a seesaw from a board and rocks--which may be an element in a game.

The Seesaw

Boys have found a kitten down by the shore. The mama cat sits patiently as they handle her offspring. Each boy sports a different kind of hat: one white bowler with a blue ribbon pointing to wealth; a straw hat of a farmer; and the navy blue Union cap of a soldier--the imagined futures of these three?

Boys and a Kitten

I don't know what kind of eggs the boy is hunting, but the flying gulls, sand, and shells show that these boys are close to the shore. What will they do with the eggs--sell them, eat them, or take them home?

How Many Eggs?

I like how the boys in this painting are totally relaxed on a glassy sea on a windless day. They do not seem bored--water is mesmerizing after all--and their eyes seem fastened on the horizon. The painting evokes longing for the future--"What is beyond there?" is the implied question and "When can I go there?"

Seven Boys in a Dory

I like the self-confidence these boys exude on the catboat which is commanded by the seated adult. Homer later worked this watercolor into the famous Breezing Up (also called Fair Wind) of 1876. Unlike Homer's great oil paintings of later years, such as The Fog Warning and The Gulf Stream, the emphasis in not on the elemental struggle of man and sea but on the unity of purpose of the boaters and the wind as the sailboat cuts through the water. The relaxed pose of the boys indicates that they are already old hands at boating.

Sailing the Catboat

These boys may be waiting for a boat to come in or just lying around til they think up what they are going to do next. But it is summer and there is no hurry.

Three Boys on the Shore

Monday, July 18, 2011

Play's the Thing: Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott

This is close to the way I imagine the bower of lilacs near the Victorian mansion in Alcott's book.

Louisa May Alcott is rightly renowned for Little Women, but as a child and later as an adult reading out loud to my young daughter, I found Alcott's Under the Lilacs to be the most charming "chapter book" for children--rivaled only by Anne of Green Gables. The story concerns two little girls, Bab and Betty, who live with their widowed mother in a small house next to an empty mansion, and what happens one spring when a runaway circus boy, Ben, and his trick dog, Sancho, are found in the carriage house and a lovely young woman, Miss Celia, and her sick younger brother, Thorny, come to spend the summer in the mansion. What happens is tons of fun for all!

Miss Celia's mission is to bring her convalescing brother back to life. She espies in Ben, Bab, and Betty just the right sort of people to help her do it, and Under the Lilacs offers a glimpse of how children created their own fun in the time before summer day camps and organized sports for children, not to mention television, video games, phones, movies, and all the other hyper-stimulative gadgets and toys that youngsters have at their disposal today.

Bab tugged away at the bow Miss Celia gave her.

She hands over one of the rooms of the mansion to the kids and gives them her rag bag and needles and thread, after which they designing and sewing flags to festoon the house's big porch. "A spell of ship building and rigging followed the flag fit," as Thorny let the children use his array of large toy ships and boats. "These gifts led to out-of-door waterworks, for the brook had to be dammed up that a shallow ocean might be made....

Thorny, from his chair, was chief engineer, and directed his gang of one how to dig the basin, throw up the embankment, and finally let in the water till the mimic ocean was full; then regulate the little water gate, lest it should overflow and wreck the pretty squadron of ships, boats, canoes, and rafts, which soon rode at anchor there. Digging and paddling in mud and water proved such a delightful pastime that the boys kept it up, til a series of a waterwheels, little mills and cataracts made the once quiet brook look as if a manufacturing town was about to spring up where hitherto minnows had played in peace and the retiring frog had chanted his serenade unmolested.

Miss Celia also organized jaunts to unknown spots in the countryside: "It really was quite exciting to start off on a bright morning with a roll of wraps and cushions, lunch, books, and drawing materials packed into the phaeton, and drive at random about the shady roads and lanes, pausing when and where they liked. Wonderful discoveries were made, pretty places were named, plans were drawn, and all sorts of merry adventures befell the pilgrims."

In the midst of all these adventures, each child enjoyed growth and development as part of the process of encountering obstacles, losses, or new challenges.

Louisa May Alcott--child delighter.

There is evidence from Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women that Alcott modeled Miss Celia on herself. It was the recollection of one of Louisa's schoolmates that "Louisa was the foremost of her sisters and the ringleader of the group," Reisen reports. The schoolmate also recounted a performance Louisa put together for one of her sister's birthdays. "She concocted a satisfying bill of fare out of dubious romantic legends--vaguely Gaelic, Germanic, and Native American.... Louisa stole the show as Alfarata, an Indian girl who like Louisa 'was swift as an antelope through the forest going.'"

Another playmate of Louisa's recalls that in the summer that he was 14 years old, he and the Alcott sisters played outside all day, blissfully unsupervised. "We christened a favorite nook, a beautiful rocky glen carpeted with moss and adorned with ferns opening upon the water's edge, 'Spiderland.' I was the King of the realm, Anna [Alcott] was the Queen, and Louisa the Princess Royal." He also noted that Louisa's mother Abby Alcott also participated in their play, "No matter how weary she might be with the washing and ironing, the baking and cleaning, it was all hidden from the group of girls with whom she was always ready to enter into fun and frolic, as if she never had a care."

Louisa May Alcott's childhood, we know and as Reisen relates, was not blissful but rife with poverty that served up brown bread, oatmeal, and apples for most meals. But Louisa May Alcott surely remembered the best of her playtimes and re-created them in her novels, albeit properly embellished. She, as did other authors of beloved children's books such as L. M. Montgomery, wrote her dreams so that we could dream them too... and hopefully give our children a taste of such marvels.

It takes so little to make a child happy, it is a pity grown people do not oftener remember it and scatter little bits of pleasure before the small people, as they throw crumbs to the hungry sparrows.
Under the Lilacs, by Louisa May Alcott

Dancing in the Rain

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Janet Lewis: Novelist and Poet, Wife and Mother

Janet Loxley Lewis

I am enjoying The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis (1899-1998), a novel based on a true story that shook the French village of Artigues in the middle of the 16th century.

The wife of the poet, professor, and poetic critic Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis was an author in her own right--writing poems and novels over the course of decades in a crystalline clear style. A native of Chicago and daughter of an English professor, Lewis started writing at an early age--"I don't pay as much attention, when I'm not writing, to living in general," she said in an interview--and contributed to the same high school magazine in Oak Park, Illinois, as her contemporary Ernest Hemingway. Later, studying at the University of Chicago, she met Yvor Winters. Throughout first his and then her own convalescence from tuberculosis, the two carried on a literary and romantic correspondence that culminated in their marriage in 1926.

The two shared a passion for poetry and writing and founded and co-produced the literary magazine The Gyroscope from 1929 to 1931. When Winters died in 1968, she kept his writing shed as is and his name on the mailbox of their home in Los Altos, California, where they made their home upon their marriage and where Lewis lived a total of 62 years. Many of her husband's students and literary friends came to visit the Winters, including famous writers, as her obituary in the New York Times reports: "You may have to close your eyes to conjure up the sight, but there they are forever, two 1899 contemporaries standing side by side at the kitchen sink, Janet Lewis washing, Vladimir Nabokov drying."

Her Times obituary also notes that
over the course of a a career in which she wrote hundreds of poems, a single collection of short stories, a couple of children's books, a handful of novels, the words to five operas and one acclaimed masterpiece, Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche -- and far back in the annals of criminal law -- to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century's most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.

She also had to find the time.

As she once observed, women of prodigious literary output, like Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, tended not to have children. As the mother of two, Miss Lewis willingly put her work aside when her children were young and cheerfully accepted other duties as well. ''It's a question of what you want to do with your life,'' she once said. ''You might also want to take care of your husband.''

In an interview in Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, Lewis herself stated her priorities: "Being a writer has meant nearly everything to me beyond my marriage and children."

Lewis had a life-long interest in American Indians and her first book of poetry was Indians in the Woods. Indians also feature prominently in her novel, The Invasion, A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary's, about a pioneering Scots-Irish family in 18th-century Michigan. She and her husband were also active in the civil rights movement.

Here are two of Lewis' poems.

Girl Help

Mild and slow and young,
She moves about the room,
And stirs the summer dust
With her wide broom.
In the warm, lofted air,
Soft lips together pressed,
Soft wispy hair,
She stops to rest,
And stops to breathe,
Amid the summer hum,
The great white lilac bloom
Scented with days to come.

A Lullaby

Lulle, lullay
I could not love thee more
If thou wast Christ the King.
Now tell me, how did Mary know
That in her womb should sleep and grow
The Lord of everything?

Lullee, lullay
An angel stood with her
Who said: "That which doth stir
Like summer in thy side
Shall save the world from sin
Then stable, hall, and inn
Shall cherish Christmas-tide."

Lullee, lullay
And so it was that Day.
And did she love Him more
Because an angel came
To prophesy His name?
Ah no, not so,
She could not love Him more,
But loved Him just the same.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy 4th of July, Everyone!

Ă€corn Street, Boston, by Childe Hassam, 1919

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: At the Seaside

At the Seaside by William Merritt Chase
(As always, click on the painting to see it in a larger size.)

It's summertime, and here we are at the seaside in 1892, painted by American impressionist painter and teacher, William Merritt Chase. Chase seems to particularly enjoy painting his family, which is likely the subject here, since he had a home in Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Chase had eight children.

In this work, he has captured the charm of being near the water in the midst of a stiff breeze--the umbrellas are protection against the wind, not the sun. Ladies traipse down to the beach from their houses with pillows, umbrellas, and children in tow. Children have the same preoccupations as today: digging around in the sand looking for whatever tiny critters, shells, pebbles, egg bags, seaweed, tiny seahorses, and other treasures they might find. They closely the observe the magic of burying and unburying, of hiding and seeking. Perhaps the families behind the umbrellas have brought food for picnicking. All appear unified by their class, pleasure, umbrellas, white apparel, and the red that Chase has splashed about on their clothes and accoutrements.

Best of all, we see in the foreground a mother in dialogue with her child. The tilt of the daughter's head could signal that the child is trying to accept a rejection of a request, or perhaps her mother is telling a story of the sea, perhaps a grandfather was a sea captain. The other daughter squats behind her mother, totally oblivious to the discussion, totally absorbed in her digging. Like his near-contemporary Mary Cassatt, Chase was an impressionist with a gift for catching the relational moment of his subjects.