Sunday, May 22, 2011

Booth Tarkington's Alice Adams

Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams. Alice had to wear a made-over organdy dress and walked all over the city to gather violets for her bouquet to wear to a dance whose hostess was an upper-crust "friend."

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but its tale is far sadder than the 1935 movie of the same name starring Katharine Hepburn.

Alice is a young woman of the middle class in her early twenties who seeks a husband of status, success, and wealth--at the behest of her mother. For most of the book, the most potent actor on the stage is Mrs. Adams, wife of Virgil Adams, a clerk in a city manufacturing firm, and mother to Alice and son Walter. Mrs. Adams is seems would sacrifice anything--including her life, if she had to--for her husband and her children. In reality, her primary concern is that her children achieve the wealth and status she desperately desires for herself and which she would believed she would acquire, but did not, with her marriage to Virgil Adams--a man she treats now with only disdain.

Hence, her life zeal is focused on enabling Alice to associate with the right circles--everything that Alice wears, how she behaves, her life in fact--is constrained by a mother whose only thought is that she must dress, walk, act, dance, and be seen with the right people so that "people will think..." and that, conversely, she must not dress, walk, act, dance, and be seen with her peers, so that "people do not think"...., "people" always being the right kind of people.

For the same reasons she upbraids her husband for not bringing in enough money so that her children enjoy all the "privileges that other people have"--defined as membership in a country club, fine clothes, the best schools, and so forth. Her attachment to such goals is so great that she proclaims, when forced to defend herself, that "Money is the family."

The effect of this manipulative mentality on Alice is to shape her into a narcissist. She sits before the mirror and realizes that the way she behaves with her erstwhile friends in the right set is a lie and has nothing to do with who she really is. But then, she realizes, to her profound dismay, she does not really know who she is. Tarkington implies that she is saved both by the humility of her father and her love for him. As inevitable misfortune descends upon the family, Alice stands up and points herself in a direction grounded in reality rather than in her mother's fantasies.

Booth Tarkington was an upper-cruster himself. His prize books--Alice Adams and the Magnificent Ambersons (second book of a trilogy)--examined the toll of industrial growth on American society.

The grave flaw of Alice Adams is that we never learn why Mrs. Adams is the way she is. Her character never deviates from its social-climbing pattern; she represents a type whose clamors drive the plot forward but whose human truth the author cared not to explore.

However, since Alice Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, we have to assume that it touched an emotional nerve in America's self-perception at the time. Class stratification, with or without money, may have been far more significant than it is today, or rather its standards have changed.

One thing though must have been as obvious in 1922 as it is now: Mrs. Adams has no idea what is important in life, an ignorance that destroys her son and nearly destroys her daughter.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: The Sick Child

The Sick Child by Gabriel Metsu, c. 1664

I am pleased to post a guest article by a friend and art historian, Nora Hamerman. I think the background to The Sick Child that she brings to light makes this painting all the more poignant.

A Catholic `Dutch Master’

In the Golden Age of 17th century Netherlands, Gabriel Metsu infused scenes of contemporary daily life with allusions to the sacraments.

By Nora Hamerman

One of the most striking pictures at the special exhibit devoted to Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington shows a woman, her face in shadow, cradling a listless boy on her lap. The child looks wan. His outer clothing has been discarded on a nearby chair. A side table holds a porridge bowl and a spoon. On the wall over the child’s head hangs a picture of the Crucifixion of Christ in grisaille, a grey-toned technique used to imitate sculpture.

The painting, a beloved treasure of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on loan to the Washington exhibit until July 24, 2011, is labeled The Sick Child, but it might just as well be titled, “The Caring Mother,” suggests National Gallery of Art curator Arthur Wheelock. Viewers may enjoy this picture as an exquisitely brushed oil painting of red, blue, and ochre against more neutral shades; or they may look deeper for a religious meaning, specifically, a Roman Catholic one.

The child’s nude legs hanging down in front are most unusual in the domestic scenes that were a popular staple of Dutch 17th-century art. What they do call to mind are the numerous Renaissance-era paintings of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child at the Nativity, or of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on her lap at the Lamentation. The sick child’s pose is especially close to that of the dead Christ on Mary’s lap in Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican. Metsu, who never went to Italy, was a Catholic like his famous contemporary Vermeer, and trained by some of the leading Dutch Catholic artists. He would have known the work through prints.

Pieta by Michelangelo, 1499

One widely circulated engraving posed Michelangelo’s Pieta in front of a crucifix in Santa Maria della Febbre (Saint Mary of the Fever) next to St. Peter’s in Rome, where the statue had been moved in 1516. This church—a lovely view of it by another Dutch master, Saenredam, is in the National Gallery’s permanent collection—also housed a miraculous image, the Madonna della Febbre, that was invoked against the plague.

Wave after wave of the bubonic plague swept through the Netherlands during Metsu’s lifetime, felling nearly a quarter of the population of his native Leiden when he was a child, and claiming more than 30,000 lives in Amsterdam between 1663 and 1664, when Metsu, residing in that city, was painting The Sick Child. No one knew how the disease was transmitted, and children were at highest risk. Fever and thirst were common symptoms. Popular literature advised mothers to hold their afflicted children on their lap and feed them pap.

The Roman Catholic community--comprising about a third of the Dutch population, and obliged to worship in secret--relied heavily on reverence for the Virgin Mary and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick, in these desperate times. “During the height of the plague in Amsterdam, the close, personal concern of a Dutch mother with her child during a period of illness served as a vehicle for a reflection of the love and attentiveness of the Virgin Mary for her son, Christ, during his infancy and adult life,” writes Valerie Hedquist, a University of Montana professor who has analyzed the Catholic meaning in works by Metsu and Vermeer.

Most of Metsu’s pictures are what art historians call “genre” scenes, depictions of daily life. He often put a Catholic twist into these pictures. His version of An Old Woman at Her Meal highlights red wine and bread in an allusion to the Eucharist.

An Old Woman at Her Meal by Gabriel Metsu, 1657

In 1645, the Roman Catholic community observed the 300th anniversary of the miracle of Amsterdam, in which a Host had survived abuse and worked healing miracles. Joost Vondel, the nation’s greatest poet and a Catholic convert, issued a poem “Mysteries of the Altar” defending the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament.

Just before he died in the prime of life, Metsu painted a Crucifixion similar to the painting in the background of The Sick Child. His large canvas, loaned to the exhibit by Rome’s Capitoline Picture Gallery, might have been destined for one of the hidden churches in private houses in Amsterdam where mass was celebrated. Christ is silhouetted against a dark background while the Virgin Mary, Saint John, and Saint Mary Magdalene grieve at the foot of the cross. The Magdalene grasps the cross in a gesture that Catholic literature identified as the saint’s attempt to touch the blood of Christ. Her white undergarment spreads like a caporal in the center foreground under a golden chalice and paten.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a Sleeping Porch

Victorian home with a sleeping porch on the second floor. Usually built off a bedroom, the sleeping porch was screened in on three sides for maximum air circulation.

We assume in Virginia that hot weather will eventually arrive, which sets me to wishing again that I had a sleeping porch. So often in the summer, it is a lot cooler at night outside than it is in or there is a soft breeze outside that invites enjoyment. But we are stuck sleeping inside our homes with the windows shut and the hum of canned air. At these times, I start fantasizing about building a porch outside my bedroom window.

The screened-in sleeping porch enabled adults and children to sleep outside with protection from rain and insects during the hot summer months. With the advent of electric fans and air conditioning, it was erased from blueprints for new homes. But perhaps the high price of energy these days will bring about its revival, or families will start building them on their own. Here are some inspirations.

I like the way this porch is right up there with the trees--almost an enclosed treehouse.

Here's a first-floor screened in porch used for sleeping--and reading during the daytime?

At her home in Florida, Margaret Rawlings, author of The Yearling, wrote her books on a table on her porch and also slept there.

This sleeping porch also has windows, so that it can be used in the colder months also. These types of rooms also make nice studies or dining areas.

The sleeping porch offers us an opportunity to be more aware of our natural surroundings.

My personal favorite: the night-time nursery outside.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Every Human Life Has Meaning

This video was shown to my daughter's pediatric nursing class at the University of Pennsylvania to highlight the way in which medicine is fighting to prolong the life of newborns with disorders and other problems. Among other benefits, the fight to save an apparently doomed infant can lead to breakthroughs in care practices that can be incorporated into protocols and to new insights into the disease that can contribute to finding a cure.

Happy Mother's Day, Everyone!

Flowers in a Vase by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1866

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: Purposes of the Porch

Perching before one's admirers (see Gentle Julia): Summer Girl by Robert Lewis Reid, 1896

Resting and contemplating at the end of the day: The White Porch by Daniel Garber, 1909

Communing with nature: Listening to the Orchard Oriole by Childe Hassam, 1902

Relaxing with the family: On the Verandah by John Singer Sargent, 1921

Coordinating with the flowers for one's admirers: The Crimson Rambler by Philip Leslie Hale, 1908

Sharing a quiet afternoon tea: Tea on the Porch by Willard Metcalf, 1890

Sewing and dining in elegance outside: Summer Porch at Mr. and Mrs. C.E.S. Wood by Childe Hassam, 1914

Chatting with friends: Ten Pound Island by Childe Hassam, 1896

And, oh my, reading: Couch on the Porch at Cos Cob by Childe Hassam, 1914

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Stone Diaries

Lilies by Childe Hassam, 1910

The Stone Diaries by the Canadian author, Carol Shields, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and tells the life story of one Daisy Flett (nee Goodwill), a Canadian by birth who then lived for a time in Indiana, went to live with her husband in Ottawa, and then retired for her final years in Florida.

Although Shields, who died in 2003, is considered and considered herself to be a domestic novelist, that is, writing about the domestic work of women in her novels, I would beg to differ with this categorization. Although she writes of scenes in which Daisy plans and carries out domestic activities, because the heroine's heart is not in her work, it remains a cold and rather dull activity.

The book chronicles Daisy's life, but for the most part only as seen by those around her, and we learn more about these characters than we ever know about Daisy. Some of these characters love her--her father, her husband, her children, and the next-door neighbor, Clarentine Flett, who took Daisy in as a wee infant when her own mother died giving birth to her. We also see Daisy through the eyes of the town wags, or hear about her in announcements of her major life events in newspapers, letters by friends, and other assorted specks of prose such as lists, real estate clippings, luncheon menus....

Throughout this Daisy remains nearly opaque to herself and also to us. We are led to believe through the course of the novel that the only thing about which she felt truly passionate was her writing of a garden column for the local newspaper. When she lost this job after eight years she went into a morose depression, from which she noiselessly emerged to resume her life as mother, grandmother, and friend.

Before she dies, Daisy writes an epitaph for herself:
Flowers gratefully accepted in remembrance of Daisy Goodwill Flett, who embraced as well as she was able most growing things
gardens children balloons
of memory
though she feared greatly the encircling shadow of her solitude and silence which she came to equate with her own life
Daisy Daisy give me your answer true
Day's eye, day's eye
The face in the mirror is you
There are undoubtedly some people who go through their life this way. We are led to believe that the source of Daisy's anomie is that she lost her mother at birth. The only mother she knew was the generous gardener, Clarentine, who loved Daisy, as she had loved her friend, Daisy's mother. Although Daisy's gardening may be a tribute to Clarentine, Daisy seems to have no depth of feeling for Clarentine or anyone else close to her, including her husband, Clarentine's son. Daisy is fixed on the loss of the mother she never knew.

But Daisy is not portrayed as emotionally aberrant but as every woman, at least of her time--Daisy was born in 1905.

Now it is true that there may be a part of us all that feels the way Daisy does about her life--that is in a quandary, feels no real connection with others, is ceaselessly grumbling over life's disappointments, even those that can't be remembered, and suspects the impossibility of meaningful activity. It's the atavistic part of ourselves we generally try to ignore in favor of getting out of ourselves and going about the business of life, and if we try to think of who we are, it is impossible to contemplate ourselves without bringing to mind all those we have loved and who have loved us.

Shields, though, seems to say that reality is the grey dusty doubt and withdrawal that is her portrait of Daisy. Such is the mode of modernity.