Sunday, February 19, 2012

Delta Wedding Celebration Fare

In Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, on the night before the wedding, all the family has gathered at the Fairchild house for a family celebratory meal. Here's what Ellen Fairchild served:

"They had been eating chicken and ham and dressing and gravy, and good, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, all kinds of relish, and watermelon rind preserves, and that good bread--their plates were loaded with corncobs and little piles of bones, and their glasses drained down to blackened leaves of mint, and the silver bread baskets lined with crumbs.... Then Roxie was putting a large plate of whole peaches in syrup and a slice of coconut cake" on the table."

The wedding dinner featured chicken salad--"two or three tubs and we've got it covered on ice"--along with cold lobster aspic, champagne, and of course, the cake. There was always cake, at all meals, it seems, served with fruit, and for all snacks and for tea when the aunts or anyone else came to visit.

Shown here is my favorite southern cookbook: The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fine Arts Friday: Fern Coppedge

January Sunshine

(All paintings in this post are by Fern Coppedge. As always click on the picture to get a better view.)

"People used to think me queer when I was a little girl because I saw deep purples and red and violets in a field of snow. I used to be hurt over it until I gave up trying to understand people and concentrated on my love and understanding of landscapes," Fern Isabel Coppedge once related. She had wanted to be an artist since she was 13 years old and became more enamored with the idea when her family moved to California from her native Illinois and she attended her sister's watercolor class.

Stone House

She went on to study at McPherson College and the University of Kansas, where she met her husband Robert Coppedge. A teacher, he encouraged her to study art, and when they moved to Illinois, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1908 to 1910. From there she moved to New York, where she studied at the Art Students League with Vincent DuMond and William Merritt Chase and also attended summer art sessions in Woodstock, New York, where she studied with winter specialist John Carlson. In 1917, she began to study with Daniel Garber at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and started to show her work.

Lumberville Cottage

From then on, although she also painted in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the summer, Coppedge lived in Pennsylvania and built her artistic reputation painting the landscapes of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia. From 1920 to 1929, she lived in Lumberville near Garber and then moved to the artist colony in New Hope, along the Delaware River, where she resided til her death in 1951. Many of her paintings can be seen at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.


Coppedge was an official member of the Philadelphia Ten, an organization created by women artists who had studied at either the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design) or the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Founded in 1917, the Ten had banded together to give greater prominence to their works in a market that was dominated by the works of male artists. Although the flattened later works of Coppedge remind the viewer of post-impressionist works in France, the Ten never embraced the modern art that hit America with the 1913 Chicago Armory Show.

Normans Woe Gloucester, Massachusetts

Coppedge always went outdoors to capture her vision of the landscape, no matter the weather. "I may erase most of my sketch, but after I have it the way I want it in charcoal, then I work over the entire canvas with a large brush," she explained of her method of painting. "I use thin paint in trying to get the right value. I test different spots to see whether the scene should be painted rich or pale. Then I proceed with the actual painting using paint right from the tube. I hold the brush at arm's length and paint from the spine. That gives relaxation."

Fern Isabel Kuns Coppedge

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Warm and Pretty"

It is September 1923, and Dabney Fairchild is marrying Troy Flavin in the Fairchild family house in Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, first published in 1946. We see all the hustle and bustle and the intricate weaves of the relationships of all the family members in this portrayal of a way of life is, for the most part, no more. Here is a short excerpt when hand-made quilts arrive the day before the wedding, sent by the bridegroom's mother:

But Troy was pushing his way into the parlor, intent.
"Look," he said, "everybody look. Did you ever think your mother could make something like this? My mammy made these, I've seen her do it. A thousand stitches! Look--these are for us, Dabney."
"Quilts!" Dabney took his arm. "Shelley! Come in and look. Troy, come speak to Aunt Tempe--she's come for the wedding. Papa's sister from Inverness."
But he flung her off and held up a quilt of jumpy green and blue. "'Delectable Mountains,'" he said. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I swear that's the 'Delectable Mountains.' Do you see how any lady no higher'n a grasshopper ever sewed all those little pieces together? Look, 'Dove in the Window.' Where's everybody?"
They all came forward and watched Troy spread out the quilts, snatch them together, spread them out again...

"What's the name of this quilt?" asked Dabney, arms on her hips.
"Let's see. I think it's 'Tirzah's Treasure,' but it might be 'Hearts and Gizzards.' I've spent time under both."

"Ma pieced that top of a snowy winter," said Troy gravely staring, his eyes far away.
"I wish I could make something like that," said Aunt Primrose gallantly.
"Not everybody can," said Troy. "But 'Delectable Mountains,' that's the one I am for Dabney and me to sleep under most generally, warm and pretty."

Monday, February 13, 2012

More People Living Alone in the United States

Christmas Eve by Carl Larsson

The number of people in the United States who live alone continues to climb and stands now at 27%, still lower than that of most Western European countries, where Sweden's 47% hits the high mark, noted an op ed in the New York Times February 4, on the basis of U.S. 2010 Census reports.

The author, Eric Klinenberg, argues that "living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities."
What I find interesting about this
sentence is the distinct line drawn between being with one's family and engaging in social activities. For many people, being with their family, including their extended family, is the heart of their social life. When I was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, our family lived within half an hour of our grandparents' houses. We saw our grandparents often. We vacationed with our grandparents. We went to parties of the extended family or parties involving the extended family plus friends. Aren't all of these social activities? Isn't the family dinner a social activity?

It is true, as the author notes, that families today are less social within their own homes. Technologies such as TV, ipods, and computers have pulled children and parents away from the family dinner table and familial interaction. Smaller nuclear families also make for less interaction and fun in the house. The fact that 77% of all married mothers with children under the age of 15 work outside the home has drastically reduced the number of meals eaten together for families and in some cases eliminated the family meal altogether. And, with the far greater geographical dispersion of extended families since World War II, visiting grandparents and aunts and uncles can involve air travel or long car rides and is mostly reserved for holidays. These conditions, sadly, could be causing an under-socialization within the family, hurling members outside of it to seek friendship, comfort, and fun.

Nevertheless, I take issue with the idea that family and social life are mutually exclusive. The author notes that living alone "comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life"--"values" that also add to the centrifugal forces pulling at the family today.

Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding: A Family Celebration

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty was a joy to read, although sometimes the syntax took some getting used to. The style is brisk and breezy but not light. The second daughter of Battle and Ellen Fairchild is marrying Troy Flavin, the overseer of the Fairchild cotton farm on the Yazoo River in the Mississippi delta. It's a large family and there are aunts living with them and more uncles, aunts, and great aunts and cousins to descend upon the home for the wedding and fest to follow. The author is attentive to nearly all members of the family and highly-charged children dart in and out of the book's dialogue, just as they do whenever there are a lot of people in the house for a grand celebration. Everyone is there and we get to know most of them in some way at least, in Miss Welty's panoramas of the family scene.

There are glimpses into the inner thoughts of some. The excerpt below, concerning the bride's mother, Ellen, is one of the most solemn moments in a book that is otherwise as lively as the family it describes:

When Ellen was nine years old, in Mitchen Corners, Virginia, her mother had run away to England with a man and stayed three years before she came back. She took up her old life and everything in the household went on as before. Like an act of God, passion went unexplained and undenied--just a phenomenon. "Mitchen allows one mistake." That was the saying old ladies had at Mitchen Corners--a literal business, too. Ellen had grown up not especially trusting appearances, not soon enough suspecting, either, that other people's presence and absence were still the least complicated elements of what went on underneath. Not her young life with her serene mother, with Battle, but her middle life--knowing all Fairchilds better and seeing George [her brother-in-law] single himself from them--had shown her how deep were the complexities of the everyday, of the family, what caves were in the mountains, what blocked chambers, and what crystal rivers that had not yet seen the light.
Ellen sighed, giving up trying to make Robbie eat; but she felt that perhaps that near-calamity on the trestle was nearer than she had realized to the heart of much that had happened in her family lately--as the sheet lightning of summer plays in the whole heaven but presently you observe that each time it concentrates in one place, throbbing like a nerve in the sky.

Eudora Welty wrote Delta Wedding in 1946.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

American Under-18 Population Drops

For the first time in at least two decades, the Wall Street Journal reported January 6, the American population under the age of 18 years of age fell between 2010 and 2011. First off, fewer immigrant children are coming to the United States. Second, fewer children are being born. The Journal correlates the decreased birth rate with the states hardest hit by unemployment--which seems true but not uniformly.
The numbers of children in the United States also fell in the 1970s, when the country underwent both economic recession and cultural upheaval--women entered the workforce en masse and the divorce rate climbing steeply. A large drop in fertility was also the cause of a decline in the number of children in the 1920s--a boom period that was also marked by a major shift in cultural norms with the emergence of the flapper.
Overall, the number of children in the United States is still 2.3% above that of 2000, but that growth occurred in the early part of the decade.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind

David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars and The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind

About every two years or so, I return to the film Snow Falling on Cedars and imbibe the beauty of this tale by David Guterson and of the movie it was made into. This January I found myself doing the same, the film suiting a post-Christmas more inward-looking mood perhaps. I put the film on when I was doing other things, even out of the room the tv is in; since I know it so well I know which pictures to conjure in my mind to match with the dialogue or music I hear. This time I was struck with what a decent person Ishmael, the young man who is the central character, turns out to be--how he goes out of his way to help his old friend, even though his heart is breaking, even though it means he will lose his dream of her forever. The way in which Ishmael changes in the story, coming to grips with his past at home and at war, is exactly what I am looking for in a story--a character that manages to scrabble his way to a better self.

I wondered if David Guterson has other such characters. I made a beeline to the library and took out his collection of short stories titled The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind.

The answer is Yes. With the exception of the first story, the collection strikes the same kind of gently quiet but always-moving tone of Snow Falling on Cedars. Guterson's poetic description is generously present--description that arrests you with the unique perceptions of his eye and choices and juxtapositions of his words. Never gratuitous, invasive, or interrupting, this quality of his writing makes the "country" a participating force of the story--matching, highlighting, or countering the mood of the moment.

The subjects are the different, and changing, cultures of family life in America, the passage of generations, growing up and not growing up, friendship, the apprehension of beauty, and the glorious otherness of nature.

My favorite stories were "American Elm" and "The Day of the Moonwalk." In "American Elm" we meet the kind of quiet kind young man that recalls the hero of Snow Falling on Cedars. "The Day of the Moonwalk," for me, was a near perfect construction for a short story, conveying so much in so few words that I was awe-struck.

Then I came across this passage in the last story, "The Flower Garden," that gave me pause:
He was a large, difficult and serious man who spoke to me often of the vagaries of baseball, wiping his face all around with a handkerchief and exuding a domestic, comfortable confidence. I often think of him now as one of a dying breed of men, who want, really, nothing for themselves, who have effaced their innermost desires without self-flagellation, and--in order to avoid the desperations of solitude--have given themselves over completely to their wives and to their children, and ultimately to their children's children, and done it with magnificent serenity.
I am looking forward to reading more of Mr. Guterson's works.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Alice McDermott's Wakes and Funerals

Alice McDermott: Trying to write while her children are at school.

"To get it right," says Alice McDermott in a beautiful article on her life as an author of fiction, "is to find the language that conveys what is beyond the reach of words, the language that allows us, reader and writer both, to glimpse whatever it is that makes us love life terribly, as Fitzgerald put it. Even for a minute."

I think McDermott has achieved this aim in Wakes and Funerals. Mostly seen from the eyes of three children, the novel centers on a family--mother, father, and three children, who live out in the Long Island suburbs during the 1950s. Twice a week each summer, the mother, Lucy, drags the children to visit her stepmother, called simply Momma, and Lucy's three sisters who live in a small, airless apartment in Brooklyn. The trip takes multiple bus changes, and they reamin there through dinner, after which the father comes to pick up his family and drive them back to Long Island.

One is amazed at the incredible patience of the children. Lucy comes back to her stepmother's household mostly to complain about her unhappiness with her marriage, lamenting that her husband "is not the same" since he returned from the war. "This is not the man I married," she says, although by the end of the book she appears to have reconciled herself to loving him.

Girl in Brooklyn in the 1950s.

One wonders if her husband is really Lucy's problem. In accounts of their yearly vacations and whenever he is present, the father seems to be a loving man who tries to do the best for his family and throw some fun into the bargain. Fun is at a premium at the house in Brooklyn, where Momma reigns over three not-young daughters, two of whom have not found the gumption to build families of their own. One had happily become a nun, but left the convent because her joie de vivre far outstripped her attachment to God. This sister makes efforts to alleviate the boredom of her two nieces and nephew and eventually falls in love and marries, but Momma's house in Brooklyn in under a shroud woven by grief over the death in childbirth of the mother of Lucy and her sisters, the widower's subsequent marriage to his wife's sister--Momma, and the father's sudden death shortly thereafter.

Yet, this does not seem to be the true subject of McDermott's book. We are not treated to in-depth exposures of character. Rather, it is as if McDermott is writing about the cultural air. Her major focus is the ambiance, the details of everyday living, the descriptions of the streets both in Long Island and Brooklyn, the apartment, the cars, the people, the pets--the life--the world that these characters go about their lives in. Catholicism is also a unvarying presence--the home over home. Reading the many detailed descriptions in the book as the characters move through their story, one feels as if one were being carried down a stream created by the ambiance she describes. While all characters are treated sympathetically, they are part of the stream, too. It is the total world they live in--the very air they breathe--that McDermott most beautifully and lovingly evokes.