This particular trend may not be as hot as it was in the heyday of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (published posthumously in 2005), but it’s still with us. For one thing, we continue to be fairly inundated by the Scandinavians. My long running favorites among them are Karin Fossum of Norway and Kjell Eriksson of Sweden. Jo Nesbo, also of Norway, is a perennial favorite of many crime fiction readers.
Icelandic authors have been receiving favorable notices: Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason. And I’ve just learned of yet another from the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: Ragnar Jonasson. Author of the Dark Iceland series – consisting so far of Snowblind and Nightblind – Mr. Jonasson is the recipient of the 2016 Mörda Dead Good Reader Award.
Currently I’m intrigued by a new (or newly translated) series written by Harri Nykänen. It’s set in Finland and features Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crime Unit; he’s identified by StopYoureKillingMe.com as “one of only two Jewish cops in the country.” Thus far, the first two series entries, Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back, have been translated into English. I’ve just started Nights of Awe and it looks promising. Right off the bat it provides a vivid illustration of the challenges to English-speaking readers that can be posed by novels such as this:
Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.
Well, I’m glad he caught that tram; the spell checker was about to have a breakdown!
Last year, the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group focused mainly on international titles. As a result, we had some exceptionally good reading. My favorites were The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden), and A Possibility of Violence by D. A. Mishani. I’m especially eager to read Mishani’s next entry in the Avraham Avraham series. The title in the States is The Man Who Wanted To Know Everything; it was released in this countryr on November 8 of this year.
The international crime fiction scene can be roughly divided into two categories: novels in translation and novels written in English and set in a foreign land. With regard to this latter category, the author is often one who over the years has acquired a deep knowledge of the locale in which his or her stories unfold. My favorite example of this scenario is Martin Walker’s series, Bruno, Chief of Police. As each of these novels unfolds, the reader is transported to the beautiful Perigord region in the south of of France. Indeed, while immersed in these delicious entertainments, I often give myself over to transports of delight: the scenery, the history – starting with the prehistory, the intriguing characters – oh, and the food!
The latest in the series is entitled Fatal Pursuit. As always, the communal life of the village is vividly depicted; it make one envious of what these people possess.
“Crepuscule, one of the loveliest words in our language, for one of the loveliest times of the day just as it gives way to night,” the baron said softly, gazing at the shifting planes of red and crimson light on the river. “Sitting here with wine and food and surrounded by friends as generations must have done before us in this very place, makes all the world’s troubles seem very far away.”
Immersed in the rich history of the region, the baron adds:
“Sometimes I imagine the prehistoric people sitting here on the riverbank, sharing their roast mammoth or whatever it was and watching the sun go down just like us.”
Concluding his reverie, the baron raises his glass in a toast: “‘I drink to them, whoever they were’.”
The baron has been conversing with Bruno, who knows hinself to be lucky to work and live in this caring and vibrant community. Among his many tasks, he’s in the process of training up his basset puppy, the wonderfully named Balzac, to hunt for black truffles, the diamonds of the Perigord.
Young as he was, Balzac seemed fearless, ready to chase away even a big fox. Feeling a sudden burst of affection, Bruno knelt down to stroke him and tell him what a fine hunting dog he would be.
A scene that encapsulated in a nutshell why I love both Bruno and Balzac.
With regard to French crime fiction: on the other hand…
Pascal Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge opens with a sympathetic portrait of a recently widowed woman in her sixties. Eliette Velard finds herself unexpectedly alone in the country house in which she and her husband had planned to live for the duration of his retirement years. She is melancholy but determined to make something meaningful of the years remaining to her. The pace of novel’s plot is at first quite leisurely, with Eliette meticulously preparing a jardiniere, a dish of thickly cut fresh vegetables. Cooking is followed by eating, which in turn is followed by a nap. Meanwhile, the nature of the countryside exerts its beneficent influence:
By the time she woke up, the rain had stopped. A baby-blue sky extended as far as the eye could see. There was a smell of washing powder in the air, of sheets drying on the breeze. In the garden the bay leaves were fringed with water, each droplet holding a ray of sunshine within it. All around, the mountains were steaming, streaked ochre and purple and foaming minty green to freshen the wind’s breath.
Oh, good, I thought: a slow-paced, reflective character study with, as Dorothy L. Sayers would say, ‘detective interruptions.’
Boy, was I wrong! First, there’s the apparition of sudden passion, followed by a neighbor gone inexplicably rogue, and…well, I invite you to read it and find out for yourself (available as a Kindle download for $8.99).
Of course, we cannot leave the subject of crime fiction in La Belle France without a nod and a salute to Georges Simenon. I’ve read and liked several of the so-called romans durs – Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion – but the go-to books for me are the Maigret titles. I find it oddly consoling to spend time with L’Inspecteur and his team, all steady workers not prone to hysterics or high drama. And then there’s Madame Maigret, so low key she is almost no key, cooking and cleaning in their apartment on Boulevard Richard le Noir, cosseting her husband as if he were the child they never had.
Penguin’s reissues of these treasures, with newly commissioned translations, continue to appear with gratifying regularity. The latest one I’ve read is Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret Se Fâche), translated by Roz Schwartz. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in Meung-sur-Loire, at the Maigret’s country house, where they’ve begun spending summers since his recent retirement.
It was cool inside the house, where there was a pleasant smell of wax polish, cut hay, ripening fruit and food simmering on the stove. It had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover that smell, the smell of his childhood, of his parents’ house.
Inevitably, as with so many fictional detectives, retirement proves temporary. Maigret is soon summoned back into the thick of things, this time with a troubled family where death has paid a highly suspicious call.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this subject in this post. The most comprehensive list of international crime fiction that I know of can be found on the StopYoureKillingMe site. Similar information can be found on Eurocrime. For several years now I’ve enjoyed G.J. Demko’s Landscapes in Crime. Demko, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, passed away in 2014; nevertheless, his site is still accessible online and is well worth visiting.
So there I was, perusing my newly acquired art book from the Metropolitan Museum, when I came across a startling image that seemed totally out of keeping with the book’s general content. But let’s back up for a minute – or several minutes.
The making of portrait miniatures was one area of art in which women were able, as it were, to make their mark early in the world of art history. One of the first was the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757).
From the essay “The Revealed and the Concealed,” by John Updike:
The painting of miniature portraits, to be kept in lockets and leather cases, had become, in the decades before the daguerreotype n the 1840s, a thriving artistic industry, and one of the few in which women could succeed. The delicacy of the work–laying fine strokes or stipples of transparent watercolor upon small squares or ovals of ivory–was thought especially suited for feminine talents.
And this brings us to Sarah Goodridge. Born in Templeton, Massachusetts in 1788, Goodridge showed artistic ability early and was encouraged by her parents to develop her talent. At that time, however, educational opportunities for women were severely limited. She took instruction where and when she could, and was to a large degree self-taught. Here is some of her work:
Sarah Goodridge painted several likenesses of Daniel Webster. They were friends – possibly more than friends. In 1828, shortly after the death of his wife Grace, Goodridge sent him a miniature that was – well, rather unique, at least for the times and the country in which they were living.
Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of American portrait miniatures from the Manney Collection in the winter of 1990-1991 were startled to encounter, amid the staid Victorian visages in their tight bonnets and stocks, these luminous bare breasts. Beautifully palpable and framed by a continuous swathe of gauze, they float ownerless and glow like ghosts, or angels, in some transcendental realm whose dark atmosphere lurks in the corners.
There is a certain confrontations; severity about the precisely frontal presentation. The exquisitely tinted and shaded white skin and lipoid softness have the symmetry of armor. And a suggestion of challenge balances that of invitation. Do we imagine plea, a silent chastisement, emanating from these so vivid but ethereally disembodied breasts?
This daring and unprecedented work of art is called Beauty Revealed.
In his magisterial biography of Daniel Webster, Robert V Remini informs us that “…Daniel Webster was a passionate, romantic man all his life, however much he hid his feelings from public view.”
He needed female society and contact, and in this period of bereavement he appears to have developed a strong emotional bond with Sarah Goodridge….
If Goodridge was cherishing hopes of a marriage proposal, she was doomed to disappointment. No matter how intense their relationship may have been, Webster needed to marry money. Goodridge, living by her wits and her talent, was comfortable but not wealthy. Webster proceeded to wed Catherine LeRoy, a New York merchant’s daughter, in 1829.
As for Sarah Goodridge, she remained single for the rest of her life. Following Webster’s death, Beauty Revealed remained in the possession of his heirs and descendants, along with the artist’s easel and paintbox. (The family maintained that Sarah Goodridge had been Daniel Webster’s fiancée.) The painting was eventually given to Christie’s to be auctioned, purchased by a gallery, and acquired from thence by collectors Gloria and Richard Manney. The Manneys utlimately donated their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As to Sarah Goodridge’s intent on gifting Daniel Webster with Beauty Revealed, Updike has a pretty good idea of what it was:
Come to us and we will comfort you, the breasts of her self-portrait seem to say. We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples.
(And who else could have said it quite this way but the inimitable, not to say irreverent, John Updike?)
So begins the foreword to the catalog that accompanied the 2012 retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibit was entitled Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1859, Tanner moved with his family to Philadelphia while he was still very young. The city served as an incubator for great American art and artists, and so it proved to be with him.
Tanner’s professional journey began at age thirteen with a walk beside his father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, through Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, where they encountered a landscape painter. Transfixed by the magic of this artist’s craft, Tanner knew at that formative moment that he wanted to be an artist.
[From the above cited Foreword, by David R. Brigham]
In 1879, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. He profited greatly from his studies there, especially those undertaken with Thomas Eakins. Nevertheless, his exposure to the taunts and routine humiliation of racism distracted and dismayed him. And so, like many of his fellow artists, he journeyed to France. This was in 1891. In 1899, he married Jessie Olsson, a Swedish-American opera singer. They had a son, Jesse. With the exception of several short trips back to America, Tanner remained living abroad for the remainder of his life.
Tanner’s style was fluid; his subject matter ranged from scenes of daily life for African-Americans to religious subjects.
In paintings like The Banjo Lesson, one can see the fluid use of paint, as if he effortlessly swept the pigment onto the canvas. The light and color of the piece echo the Impressionists in that it seems as if the subjects are caught at a fleeting moment as the sun starts to fade. While many of his works were influenced by Impressionism he never moved into the whole of that style, and because of this he was often criticized as being too “old fashion.” Yet, when looking at his use of color and the application of paint, there is such vitality and softness that it is hard to imagine calling it “old fashioned.”
Both in his genre scenes, African American paintings and his religious work, there is a type of compassion and gentleness between the subjects, which is rarely seen in art. In his painting The Annunciation (1898), the divine light of an angelic presence illuminates the entire room. The young Mary, frightened but full of gentleness looks questioningly towards the messenger whose warm light seems to embrace her.
[From the Henry Ossawa Tanner entry on Sullivan Goss: An America Art Gallery]
In recognition of his achievements as an artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner was honored in his adoptive country France by being made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1923.
To view more of Tanner’s art, go to The Athenaeum.
‘There was a chilled, numb feeling at the back of his mind, the feeling of one who has had ideals shattered, who has lost confidence in a friend, and a sense of vague, impending disaster hung over him.’ – The D.A. Calls It Murder, by Erle Stanly Gardner
The year is 1937. Doug Selby is a recently elected District Attorney in Madison City, a town of modest size not far from Los Angeles. Although he’s untested, he’s very keen. A mysterious death in a downtown hotel tests his mettle in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen.
The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of that era. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper – than making long distance calls The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.
I became intrigued with this brief series after reading an article in the Fall 2016 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. In “Erle Stanley Gardner…for the Prosecution?” author Michael Mallory provides a number of useful insights on the Selby novels:
Clever plotting was always among Gardner’s strongest skills, and the plots for the Selby books are complex, ingenious, and follow a distinct pattern in which one story thread emanates from within Madison City while a second story thread arrives in town like a visitor from the outside world.
This is, in fact, just what happens in The D.A. Calls It Murder. The novel could certainly be describes as plot-driven; nevertheless, I was pleased to encounter several almost lyrical descriptive passages. In fact, the writing as a whole was better than I’d expected it to be:
It was one of those clear, cold nights with a dry cold wind blowing in from the desert. The stars blazed down with steady brilliance. The northeast wind was surprisingly insistent. Selby buttoned his coat, pushed his hands into the deep side pockets and walked with long, swinging strides.
I could not help but be reminded of the famous opening of Raymond Chandler’s 1938 short story “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Selby is a likeable protagonist; Mallory describes him as “a handsome, pipe-puffing, remarkably even-tempered reformer….” Another character whose presence on the scene I greatly enjoyed is Sylvia Martin, the enterprising reporter and friend – possibly more than friend? – of Selby’s. (She’s rather in the Lois Lane mode.) As the novel’s setting is not far from Hollywood, show business almost inevitably manages to intrude upon the proceedings. The intrusion takes the form of the actress Shirley Arden, a seductive beauty whose connection to the hotel killing is key to unraveling the mystery.
The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep. In this first Doug Selby novel, Gardner does not partake much of that ethos, although the flavor of noir lingo can be detected in certain snatches of dialog. Here, Selby has one of his rare flare-ups of temper directed at actress Shirley Arden’s slippery manager:
“You promised me to have Shirley Arden here at eight o’clock. I’m already being put on the pan for falling for this Hollywood hooey. I don’t propose to be made the goat.”
Here’s the list of Doug Selby novels:
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
The sheer volume of Erle Stanley Gardner’s literary output is truly staggering. Obtaining individual items from this vast oeuvre can be something of a challenge. Here’s what the sole copy of The D.A. Calls It Murder available from Interlibrary Loan looks like:
Michael Mallory concludes his article thus:
With their amazingly deft plots, lightning pacing, constant twists, and offbeat characters, Erle Stanley Gardner’s D.A. novels deserve to be better known and read.
I agree completely. I’ve already got my request into Interlibrary Loan for The D.A. Holds a Candle.
In 1984, a book about the early music revival came out. It was entitled Reprise and was co-authored by Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata and Herbert Snitzer. It iwas a delightful work whose its first chapter is “The Avant Garde of the Distant Past.” I love the way that phrase rolls off the tongue! This elegant locution has been recurring in my mind as I think about the resurgent interest in classic mysteries.
This is a trend that was kick started by the British Library’s series Crime Fiction Classics. The reissue in 2014 of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story – originally published in 1937 – proved to be a runaway success, an unexpected and happy development in the British publishing world. I read it, loved it, and immediately wanted more of the same – or at least, something similar. My wish was soon granted: new entries in the series were rolling off the presses at a brisk tempo.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstones, put it nicely:
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.”
I’ve written about this gratifying phenomenon in previous posts. At the risk of repeating myself – and because, after all, we have entered the season of gift giving – I’d like to note first of all the titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in the British Crime Classics series:
A couple of comments in passing: Capital Crimes and Resorting To Murder are short story collections. And if I had to pick my absolute favorites from among the above six, they would be Mystery in White and Murder of a Lady.
Reading in the British Library series has led to the reading of other classics. An appreciation by A.S. Byatt of the novels or Margery Allingham led me to Police at the Funeral, a witty and thoroughly enjoyable take on the English country house mystery featuring the unflappable Albert Campion and his “man,” the resourceful if cantankerous Magersfontein Lugg, called simply – and often – ‘Lugg’ by his boss.
Another favorite, highly recommended is The Emperor’s Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr. (I also read this author’s The Judas Window, which exemplifies Carr’s renowned cunning in the crafting of locked room mysteries. I did not, however, like it nearly as much as Snuff-Box.)
Finally, two terrific novels of psychological suspense: Before the Fact is the book on which Hitchcock’s film Suspicion is based. As for Mist on the Saltings, it deserves to be much better known than it is. I was alerted to the excellence of Henry Wade’s works by a post on Martin Edwards’s blog. Edwards calls Mist on the Saltings “a study in character that was ahead of its time.” I agree.
The most recent pleasant surprise for me in this category is a book called The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner. Yes, that’s the Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame. I’ve never read any of the novels featuring this most famous fictional defense attorney, but just about everyone from my generation remembers the TV show starring Raymond Burr.
More on The D.A. Calls It Murder in the next post.
Rather extraordinary that Whistler could have painted Wapping in the early 1860s
and Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket, circa 1875:
The short answer is “Tonalism.” This article on the site of the Montclair Art Museum enlarges on certain of this art movement’s characteristics:
With its darkish palette, Tonalism countered the high-keyed expression of sunlight and shade in French Impressionism. Tonalism was, in short, one of the swan songs of nineteenth-century American academicism. Yet, paradoxically, it was also assimilated by progressive American Impressionists, and — with its often-ambiguous forms and subjects — even anticipated abstraction.
The understated color in most Tonalist art, or its complete absence, as well as its preternatural evocations, appealed to turn-of-the-century photographers seeking to assert the legitimacy of that medium as a serious art form which could transcend the mere documentation of reality.
More useful definition from The Art Story, especially as it applies to Whistler:
By limiting his color palette and tonal contrast while skewing perspective, Whistler showcased a new compositional approach that emphasized the flat, abstract quality of the painting.
The woman here depicted is Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler’s mistress at the time. She was not quite the shy innocent suggested in this portrait. Whistler’s friends Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell described her thus:
“She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.”
Whistler himself expresses his admiration rather more freely:
“Her name is Jo Hiffernan, an Irish hellcat, skin like milk. Quick-witted for a woman, and a soul as deep as a well.”
(Quick-witted for a woman, was she? It behooves us to remember that not so long ago, it was perfectly acceptable to toss off this sort of observation disguised by the speaker as a clever bon mot.)
This same model was painted by Gustave Courbet circa 1866:
This work inspired the poem “Before the Mirror” by Algernon Swinburne:
WHITE ROSE in red rose-garden
Is not so white;
Snowdrops that plead for pardon
And pine for fright
Because the hard East blows
Over their maiden rows
Grow not as this face grows from pale to bright.
Behind the veil, forbidden,
Shut up from sight,
Love, is there sorrow hidden,
Is there delight?
Is joy thy dower or grief,
White rose of weary leaf,
Late rose whose life is brief, whose loves are light?
Soft snows that hard winds harden
Till each flake bite
Fill all the flowerless garden
Whose flowers took flight
Long since when summer ceased,
And men rose up from feast,
And warm west wind grew east, and warm day night.
“Come snow, come wind or thunder
High up in air,
I watch my face, and wonder
At my bright hair;
Nought else exalts or grieves
The rose at heart, that heaves
With love of her own leaves and lips that pair.
“She knows not loves that kissed her
She knows not where.
Art thou the ghost, my sister,
White sister there,
Am I the ghost, who knows?
My hand, a fallen rose,
Lies snow-white on white snows, and takes no care.
“I cannot see what pleasures
Or what pains were;
What pale new loves and treasures
New years will bear;
What beam will fall, what shower,
What grief or joy for dower;
But one thing knows the flower; the flower is fair.”
Glad, but not flushed with gladness,
Since joys go by;
Sad, but not bent with sadness,
Since sorrows die;
Deep in the gleaming glass
She sees all past things pass,
And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.
There glowing ghosts of flowers
Draw down, draw nigh;
And wings of swift spent hours
Take flight and fly;
She sees by formless gleams,
She hears across cold streams,
Dead mouths of many dreams that sing and sigh.
Face fallen and white throat lifted,
With sleepless eye
She sees old loves that drifted,
She knew not why,
Old loves and faded fears
Float down a stream that hears
The flowing of all men’s tears beneath the sky.
There is a kind of magic here, I think.
In my hastily scribbled notes, I’ve written three phrases uttered by our lecturer: “no narrative, no story, no point.” I’m not sure which work she was referring to.
For more on Whistler, see the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, on the Met’s site.
This is a rather unusual book – at least, for this reader it was. A lively yet dense traversal of the history of American philosophy is interwoven with the story of a sense of personal inadequacy brought on by the failure of a marriage. But our hero’s quest culminates in the excavation and salvation of a precious collection of books. At the same time that this intellectual quest is playing out, our hero – John Kaag by name – is falling in love with a fellow researcher.
Redemption on two fronts!
The philosophers Kaag writes about were deep thinkers and, at times, profound pessimists. They thought a great deal about questions such as the meaning of life; often their response to these inquiries was bleak. Preeminent among these is William James, older brother brother of the novelist Henry and a famed philosopher and psychologist in his own right:
James knew something the faithful often miss: that believing in life’s worth, for many people, is a recurring struggle.
Kaag goes on to tell us that in the 1870s, James deliberately overdoes on chloral hydrate “for the fun of it.” He wrote Henry that he wanted to see how close he could get to death without actually dying. Around this time, he would have been in his thirties.
Yet just few pages later, the author hastens to reassure us:
The appropriate response to our existential situation is not, at least for James, utter despair or suicide, but rather the repeated,ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities.
Kaag adds that “the possibilities are out there, often in the most unlikely places.”
Well, gosh, do tell – and quickly, please.
And he does.
For Kaag, in the short term, those possibilities lie in the exploration of the library of the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. The library is located at West Wind, the Hocking estate located in a remote area of rural New Hampshire. This aging and sadly neglected edifice is filled with priceless volumes – first editions of seminal works in philosophy, classics containing marginalia by William James and others.
A tremendous amount of food for thought, the collection had also for some time served as food for various insects and vermin. In addition, mouse droppings were frequently found. In other words, the library was in desperate need of rescuing. Kaag plunges in with a will. He clearly loves his subject. And he just as clearly needs to be distracted from his personal problems. The work of examining and cataloguing numerous volumes provides the scaffolding for the story of American philosophy that Kaag sets about constructing.
The cast of characters in this book is large. Some of the names were familiar; others not, at least not to me. It was a pleasure to encounter Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and to have a chance to view them in the context of the history of philosophy. Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce were names unknown to me; I was glad to make their acquaintance. To my surprise and pleasure, May Sarton and Pearl Buck also figure in this story. (I remember from my early days at the library a slender volume by Sarton that we cat lovers cherished: The Fur Person.)
The presence of Dante in this narrative both intrigued and enlightened this reader. The Divine Comedy was though to contained the summit of human wisdom – so much so that in the 1860s, it was installed as the central text in Harvard’s intellectual firmament. The poet James Russell Lowell proclaimed it to be “‘…a diary of the human soul in its journey upwards from error through repentance to atonement with God.'”
Personal salvation wasn’t just a single triumphant moment of beatific insight, as some of the Transcendentalists had suggested. Moments of insight do occasionally happen, but Dante’s point is that the real trick to salvation is that there is no trick to salvation. It’s just work, plain and not at all simple. Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
Then there were the eye glazing moments during which I felt that the discipline being described was the secular version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This was nowhere more true than when Kaag was enlarging on the subject of analytic philosophy:
Analytic philosophers tend to understand philosophy as the task of parsing arguments, breaking down complex and confusing phenomena by analyzing their constituent parts. Like scientists at a laboratory bench, these thinkers dissect human experience in order to see how it ticks. Of course, this dissection often results in the distortion or destruction of the experience itself, but many analytic philosophers don’t seem to care. They scrutinize for a living.
Don’t know about you, but this sort of thing makes me want to run out to the nearest bar for a short beer (or not so short). But then, just a few pages on, you get this:
The beautiful soul was worth sacrificing everything for. Everything! Socrates stands before his neighbors and says the unthinkable–that there is something worse than death: living an ugly, wicked, boring life. This is not the stuff of Kant’s “pure reason.” It’s the stuff of personal vision, insight, and a foolhardy courage to speak the truth.
And finally, there’s this quotation from Hocking:
“The lover widens his experience as the non-lover cannot. He adds to the mass of his idea-world, and acquires thereby enhanced power to appreciate all things.”
(Oh – and speaking of love, there’s a most intriguing revelation concerning William James. I refer you to a New York Times article entitled “The Geography of Religious Experience” by Christopher Shaw.)
I could go on to expand on subjects such as pragmatism and determinism, but really, it would be just too darn hard – for me, anyway, and possibly for you too, Dear Reader. Instead, I’ll note this strange and fascinating phenomenon from history that Kaag shares with his readers toward the end of the book:
In the medieval era it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings–for example, in the floors and walls of chapels across the British Isles. It is believed that these remains not only served as safeguards against demons but also had a more practical function: They were good for the acoustics. The songs of the living, reverberating through these dead remains, could escape the earthen walls and begin their ascent.
(In 2005, while we were visiting the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, our guide explained to us at one point that we were standing in the room in which the monks offered up their chants in praise of God. “I like to think,” she added, “that these walls are impregnated with their song.”)
I’m interested in the relationship between philosophy and religion. I sometimes think that for some people, philosophical thought is a substitute for religious belief. But from what I’ve gathered, from this book at least, one does not preclude the other.
I’ve only skimmed the surface in this write-up. Though getting through this book requires some perseverance, it is well worth it. Highly recommended.
French naturalism was a direct outgrowth of the realist movement in art. The distinction between the two is rather subtle; ergo, I’ll direct you to the relevant entry in the Visual Arts Encyclopedia.
Ms Billman cited Jules Bastien-Lepage as one of the main exponents of naturalism. I was thrilled to hear that name, as I knew what was about to appear on the screen. And sure enough:
I first saw this painting on my initial visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was eight years old. I already knew the extraordinary story of the Maid of Orleans. Seeing her brought to life in this way before my eyes – I was stunned.
It turns out that this work is somewhat of an anomaly in Bastien-Lepage’s oeuvre. As an artist in the realist/naturalist mode, he produced relatively little in the way of “history painting” or religious subjects. Here are several of his other paintings:
I’ve always wondered why Bastien-Lepage’s works were so rarely encountered elsewhere. I now know that this was due to the sad fact of his early death. According to the French language site “LES SECONDES AU TEMPS DES PEINTRES XIXEME” he died of stomach cancer at the age of 36.
Ms Billman provided a fascinating detail concerning the Joan of Arc painting. It seems that Joan never claimed to have actually seen the saints who spoke to her – only to have heard them. Hence their appearance behind her as she gazes, transfixed, into the middle distance.
What I was hearing from many people was that their only wish was for this election to be over.
It is now over.
Of course, each individual must plot his or her own course of action. I can only speak for myself. I am not moving any time soon. I have no plans to travel, except to visit beloved family and friends who live at a distance in this vast and beautiful land.
I will always be thankful to live in a country that provided a refuge for my grandparents as they fled persecution and had nowhere else to turn. Once here, they were able to work, meet, fall in love, and begin life anew.
I owe my existence to their courage and determination.
In which your intrepid faithful blogger and Jean, her equally intrepid friend and fellow art lover, commence their journey toward a Certification in World Art History, to be bestowed by the Smithsonian Associates, the educational arm of Washington’s illustrious Smithsonian Institution.
Alas, the day did not start out well. Our train, scheduled to leave at 7:59 AM, did not arrive until almost 9:30. Coincidentally, this was the exact time that our class – our very first one in the program – was scheduled to begin. As the train finally appeared in the distance, I could not help exclaiming, “Oh look! There comes a chugging giant, traveling on these tracks at which we’ve been staring in frustration for an hour and a half! I believe it is a…Can it be..Yes!”
And so it went…
We arrived, panting but barely an hour late, at the Ripley Center, an odd little edifice on the Smithsonian campus where the class was being held. At least, it seemed little, until we journeyed down two floors and found ourselves in an unexpectedly vast underground space.
But this was no time to stand gaping! We made for the Lecture Hall and were directed to the balcony, where we settled ourselves, whipped out our notebooks, and as the lecturer held forth about Realism in art history, started scribbling madly. (Everyone around us was doing the same.)
My immediate first thought: I love this!
The program was called Seductive Paris. Our lecturer was Bonita Billman, who teaches art history at Georgetown University’s School of Summer and Continuing Studies. Ms Billman was knowledgeable, discursive, and witty. She possessed a large fund of anecdotes which greatly enhanced her presentation, which consisted of four lectures. They were as follows: French Teachers and American Students; Summers in the Country: American Painters in Brittany and Normandy; Domestic Bliss: Painters of Genre Scenes; and Impressionism in America. All the while Ms Billman was sharing her expertise with us, one gorgeous slide after another appeared on the screen beside and above the podium where she stood. Some of the art work was known to me; most was not. I wrote at frantic speed (and in very low light), trying to get down the names of paintings and artists that I particularly wanted to remember.
There is simply no way I can reproduce here the vast content that constituted these talks. It was akin to condensing an entire semester of art history into one day’s proceedings. So what follows is a partial recapitulation of what was covered in the morning.
When Jean and I got to the lecture, Ms Billman was discussing Gustav Courbet, an artist of out sized genius with an ego to match. This pleased me, as I recalled the stunning exhibit of his works that I’d seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art eight years ago.
Ms Billman highlighted The Stone Breakers (1850), which was destroyed during World War Two:
Courbet was in the vanguard of realist painters. These artists turned away from portraits of the aristocracy and royalty, and of historical and mythological subjects. Instead, they sought to depict people one might encounter in the ordinary course of life, laborers and peasants being chief among these. Jean-Francois Millet was also in this group:
Our lecturer spoke about the Barbizon School and the artists associated with it. These artists were drawn to natural surroundings, and to their depiction on canvas.The Forest of Fontainebleau was their chief inspiration:
Despite differing in age, technique, training, and lifestyle, the artists of the Barbizon School collectively embraced their native landscape, particularly the rich terrain of the Forest of Fontainebleau. They shared a recognition of landscape as an independent subject, a determination to exhibit such paintings at the conservative Salon, and a mutually reinforcing pleasure in nature.
This group of artists had its counterpart in what is sometimes referred to as the American Barbizon School. Ms Billman emphasized three painters associated with this movement: William Morris Hunt, Winslow Homer, and Theodore Robinson.
For a time, William Morris Hunt and his brother Richard Morris Hunt shared an apartment in Paris, hard by the Ecole Des Beaux Arts. Writes David McCullough: “From the training and inspiration each of the brothers was to experience in the next several years in France would come great strides for each in his work.” (This quote comes from The Greater Journey: American in Paris, a book I highly recommend.)
Late in 1866, motivated probably by the chance to see two of his Civil War paintings at the Exposition Universelle, [Winslow] Homer had begun a ten-month sojourn in Paris and the French countryside. While there is little likelihood of influence from members of the French avant-garde, Homer shared their subject interests, their fascination with serial imagery, and their desire to incorporate into their works outdoor light, flat and simple forms (reinforced by their appreciation of Japanese design principles), and free brushwork.
From an essay on Winslow Homer by H. Barbara Weinberg, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Weinberg opens this essay with the following statement: “Winslow Homer (1836–1910) is regarded by many as the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century.” It’s not hard to see why.
Like William Morris Hunt, Theodore Robinson was born in Vermont. He traveled to Paris, Venice, and Bologna, returning to America in 1879. Five years later, he returned to France, where he became part of the artists’ colony that had formed around Monet at his house and garden in Giverny.
Robinson returned to America in 1892. He had intended to go back to France once again. Instead, in 1896, while in New York City, he succumbed to an acute asthma attack. He was 43 years old.
There’s more to come on ‘Seductive Paris.’