June 4, 2013
One of the great modern American literary friendships was between the poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). They met in the late 1940s and remained friends, despite some turmoil, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Bishop only survived him by two years, passing away suddenly on the day she was to give a rare public reading at Harvard University. Rare, because Bishop was very shy, especially when it came to crowds, unlike Lowell who was voluble, more than a little manic, and quite the great man of American letters.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their contrasting temperaments they bonded over poetry. It was a literary friendship in two senses: they were both fiercely committed to their craft and it was a relationship that was conducted almost entirely by mail. They were rarely in the same part of the world at the same time, not least because Bishop spent almost two decades in Brazil, living with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. So the friends grew close by writing letters to bridge the physical distance between them.
Both Lowell and Bishop were extraordinary correspondents. Does anyone write letters anymore? But Lowell and Bishop were among the last of the generations that considered letter writing an art form. Composing experiences and thoughts in a way that was coherent and reflective, Lowell and Bishop viewed letters as minor works of art, as well as a way to keep the mind alert to writing poetry. In the lives of strong writers, one is always struck by the sheer quantity of writing that they do, and letters form the bulk of this writing. Both Lowell and Bishop were remarkable correspondents both with each other and with others. But their correspondence is sufficiently important that it has been collected in the 2008 volume Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Trevisano and Saskia Hamilton.
The title is taken from an affectionate poem that Lowell wrote (and rewrote. .. and then rewrote again!) for Bishop in which he characterized her methods of composing poems. And this is the other great thing about Bishop and Lowell: they wrote poems in response to each other. Their letters were private communications but the poems were a public dialogue carried out in counterpoint. For instance, from Brazil Bishop dedicated a poem to Lowell called it “The Armadillo.” It begins with a beautiful image of a popular religious celebration, a mingling of the secular and the sacred:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
It’s impossible not to imagine that in that image of the paper filling with light, “like hearts,” Bishop was referring to letter-writing. But the fire balloons can be dangerous, and when they fall to earth they flare into brushfires that disturb the animals: “Hastily, all alone,/a glistening armadillo left the scene/rose flecked, head down. . . “ Are these fires a warning not to get too close? Bishop and Lowell had quarreled in their letters about Lowell’s use of quotations and personal details in his poems without having asked for permission. Exposed to the public, private correspondence could detonate, injuring innocent bystanders Bishop could be saying.
Lowell responded to Bishop’s armadillo with a poem called “Skunk Hour” set in Castine, Maine, where he summered. Society is all unstable: “The season’s ill—we’ve lost our summer millionaire. . .” Half way through Lowell turns on himself. Watching the cars in Lover’s Lane: “My mind’s not right. . . .I myself am hell;/nobody’s here—//only skunks, that search in the moonlight for a bite to eat.” Lowell was frequently hospitalized throughout his life with mental illness and you can hear the desperate sense of holding on as everything seems to be falling apart in this verse. “Skunk Hour” ends with an image of obdurate resistance that the poet fears he cannot share: the mother skunk, foraging in a garbage can, “drops her ostrich tail,/and will not scare.”
The title for their collected correspondence comes from Lowell’s poem for Bishop that includes the lines: “Do/you still hang your words in the air, ten years/unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase—unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?”
Unlike the voluble Lowell, Bishop was a very deliberate writer and Lowell is referring to her habit of pinning up the sheets of a work in progress and making it, essentially, part of the furniture of her life. She mulled over the work, considering and reworking the poem until she was finally satisfied with it; reportedly she worked on her well known poem “The Moose” for nearly two decades before publishing it.
Lowell was just the opposite, not least because he revised and rewrote poems even after he had published them, causing a great deal of trouble and confusion for his editors in establishing an accurate final text. Indeed, he fiddled continually with his poem to Bishop, turning it into something rather more formal and monumental in the final version.
Lowell never read Bishop’s response: it came in a memorial poem called “North Haven,” a poem like “Skunk Hour” about the seacoast. It’s a lovely tribute, full of rueful knowledge of Lowell’s character: “(‘Fun’—it always seemed leave you at a loss. . .)” and ends with
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue. . .And now – you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
It’s uneasy to cite sadness or depression as a cause of artistic creativity; most depressives aren’t great poets. Both Lowell and Bishop were sad in their various ways. Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, provides a “momentary stay against confusion.” But that’s not all it does. Indeed, in the case of Bishop and Lowell it could be argued that it was the letters that provided a structure of meaning and feeling for both poets that helped them make sense and order their experience. The poems themselves are something else entirely: expressions of feeling and self-knowledge that appear as art.
December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
October 7, 2011
On October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in disarray.
“He’s muttering a variety of things that are indecipherable. Nobody really knows who he is, and he’s not wearing his own clothes,” says David C. Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “It seems pretty clear that he was suffering from some sort of alcohol or drug overdose.”
By age 40, Poe had written reams of poetry, attempted to start his own literary journal and become one of the first Americans to support oneself strictly as a writer. But eventually, his mental illnesses and alcohol abuse caught up with him. “He’s wandering around and they put him in the charity hospital, and he suffers four days of what must have been fairly awful trouble,” Ward says. On this day in 1849, America lost one of its most innovative and unusual literary figures to a death as mysterious as his life and works.
He was born to David and Elizabeth Poe, both Boston actors, in 1809, but his father abandoned the family when Edgar was just a year old, and his mother died soon thereafter of tuberculosis. He was taken into the home of the Allans, a wealthy Virginia family, but things continued going downhill for little Edgar from there. “He had a very tempestuous relationship with his surrogate father,” says Ward. After spending an uneasy childhood in both Virginia and Britain, Poe left home to attend the University of Virginia, where he only lasted a year.
“He ran up large gambling debts, and Mr. Allan refused to pay them, so Poe drops out,” says Ward. “Ultimately, Allan rejects Poe, so there’s this element of double rejection in his life.”
After a stint as a cadet at West Point, Poe decided to devote his life to becoming a writer. “He is the first American who tried to make a living just simply by writing,” says Ward. “At the time, the other writers were usually ministers, or professors.” Over the next two decades, he obsessively crafted dark, mysterious poetry, then turned to short stories in a similar vein.
Deeply critical of contemporary literature, he held posts at various literary journals and discussed plans to start his own. Transcendentalism was one of the most prominent literary and philosophical concepts of the day, and held that individual spirituality and a connection to nature could provide meaning and insight to anyone. “He hated transcendentalism—he thought that it was just moonshine and propaganda,” Ward says. “He hated Longfellow, the preeminent poet of the day, who he saw as a fraud.”
During this time, he secretly married his first cousin, Virginia Clem. “He marries his 13-year-old cousin, which is, to be blunt, a little bit creepy,” says Ward. Soon, she too would suffer from tuberculosis, leading many to speculate that the presence of even more misery in his life further contributed to the nightmarish focus of his work.
Poe’s fixation with the macabre and gruesome cut completely against the grain of 19th-century American literature. His stories typically featured death, corpses and mourning. “Poe is totally against everything that America seemed to stand for. He’s dark, inward-turning and cerebral. Death-obsessed instead of life-obsessed,” Ward notes. “If Whitman is the poet of the open road, Poe is the poet of the closed room, of the grave.”
Poe became a household name with the publication of the poem “The Raven” in 1845, but his lasting influence is evident in a number of genres. “In 1841, be basically invents the detective story, with The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Ward says. “His detective, Dupin, is the forerunner of Sherlock Holmes: he’s a cerebral, brainiac detective who solves problems by his brain powers.” Other stories influenced Jules Verne, leading to the emergence of the genre of science fiction.
The 1847 death of Virginia, coupled with Poe’s increasingly heavy drinking, pushed him ever further into despair. But even in his final moments, he handed over a mystery, one that his fans have puzzled over for more than a century.
“The kicker to all this is that Poe supposedly left a large trunk of his archives, and that has disappeared,” Ward says. “Poe, the inventor of the mystery story, leaves this trunk behind that we would think might provide a clue to his life, but disappears. It’s this final tantalizing mystery.”
September 6, 2011
On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau decided it was time to be alone. He settled in a forest on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and built himself a tiny cabin. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he famously wrote in Walden. This work–along with Civil Disobedience, also inspired by his time at the pond–would go on to become one of the most influential writings in American history, sparking political movements from abolitionism to environmentalism to civil rights. After two years, two months, and two days in relative solitude, Thoreau left his post on this day in 1847.
“It’s really the most famous vacation in American history,” says David Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “What he did in the book was he took those two years of experiences and condensed them into a work of art.”
For one of the country’s most celebrated writers and philosophers, Thoreau came from humble beginnings. “His father was a pencil maker, and wasn’t doing very well,” Ward says. But he was discovered to be gifted at an early age, and his parents scraped together enough money to send him to private schools, including Harvard, where he read voraciously and excelled academically. After graduating, Thoreau drifted between several different teaching posts before becoming immersed in the transcendentalist movement, finding himself a mentor in its leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Emerson and Thoreau had a kind of relationship where Emerson took him under his wing and guided him,” says Ward. “He starts to write and Emerson recognizes his talent.” In part because of Emerson’s prodding, Thoreau began keeping a journal and submitting his writing to the magazine Dial. As his intellectual development continued, he lived with and worked for Emerson, branching out into new genres. “He stopped writing poetry and started writing about his personal experiences,” Ward says. “You could almost call it intellectual journalism”
Eventually, finding himself restless and in need of inspiration, Thoreau decided to carve out a new life in nature. “He wanted to get away from the rat race of manufacturing and commerce,” Ward says. Embarking on his now-famous experiment in living simply, he did his best to survive without money, growing crops and foraging what he could from the forest at Walden Pond. But, contrary to popular belief, Thoreau’s exile was not intended as a complete escape from society. “The point was for him to cultivate himself, not cultivate some sort of alternative to America,” says Ward. “He stays involved with society. What he’s trying to do is reform it, not run away from it.”
The most notorious episode of his time at Walden Pond was the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay poll taxes. He felt that providing support to the government would indicate that he condoned all of its actions, including the Mexican American War, which could have potentially spread slavery westward. This experience became the core of the ideas in the essay Resistance to Civil Government, commonly known as Civil Disobedience. “Metaphorically, Thoreau is living alone because he’s morally living alone, he’s relying only on his own conscience,” Ward says. “Which is the point of civil disobedience–that one man alone, by making a statement of conscience, can overturn a corrupt government.”
This concept, along with others expressed in his later work Walden, were enormously radical for their time. “It was a very radical statement of American individualism, which at that point, in the 1840s and 50s, was not the norm,” Ward says. Thoreau’s support of John Brown, the abolitionist who openly advocated the use of force in ending slavery, made him something of a fringe figure. “As America considered the slavery question, from the 1840s on, Thoreau was staking out the most radical position,” says Ward.
But decades and even centuries later, the impact of his words would be distinctly felt throughout society. Civil Disobedience, in particular, has been cited by leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as an inspiration for their social movements. In Walden and elsewhere, many see the seeds of the modern environmentalist movement, years ahead of their time. “He does really spark the idea of nature as something that needs to be protected,” Ward says. “Very early on, he got the idea that the division of labor, and commerce, and making and spending might have detrimental effects on both individuals and society.”
After living simply at Walden Pond, Thoreau went on to travel widely as an amateur naturalist, writing prolifically. Very few photos of him remain, but one, a small daguerreotype from 1956, is in the Portrait Gallery’s collection. It was made, in typically Thoreau-ian fashion, frugally. “A reader sent him a $5 bill and said he admired his work so much, he’d like a photograph to go with the book,” Ward says. “Thoreau went into town, went to the daguerreotyper, and had this small daguerreotype taken, probably the cheapest variety you could have made. He sent it and the change back to this man in Ohio.”
Today, Thoreau’s influence in American culture is unmistakable. Ironically, this stems from the fact that he was content to think on his own terms, at times completely outside of society. “He seems a very solitary and self-contained man,” Ward says. “But he’s not by any means a hermit, or a crank. He was very sociable and good-humored and involved in the world, it’s just that his slant on it was very different from others.”
August 25, 2011
In postwar America, there was once a time when a writer could be a superstar. In the late 1960s, author Truman Capote had reached the pinnacle of the jet set, lunching with New York socialites and throwing a masquerade ball that many called the social event of the sixties. Capote’s crossover fame is scarcely rivaled by any celebrity today, according to Amy Henderson, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “In television there were three networks, people watched the same stuff, they saw the same movies. It was a different time. Everything is now so much more fragmented that it’s hard to find one person who bridges all those segments,” she says.
“He was in the magazines, on the TV, in the newspapers’ social columns. He was a creature of the moment,” says Henderson.
Eventually, though, it would all come crashing down for Capote. After struggling through depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, he died at the age of 59 on this day in 1984.
Capote’s thirst for fame and motivation to write both stemmed, in part, from his essential oddness. “He was only 5′ 3″, he was a little elfin creature. But he was very amusing, and he liked being that social butterfly,” Henderson says. He discovered his ambition to be a writer as a child, and worked diligently at developing his craft from the age of 11. “He said that, where other kids would go home and practice the violin or piano, or play ball, he would come home from school and write for about three hours,” says Henderson. “I am guessing that he was so different from other kids that it was an escape mechanism for him.”
As a writer of short stories, his timing couldn’t have been better. “It was the heyday of short fiction, and that was a wonderful coming together of his real talent and the time,” Henderson says. After having several short stories published, he got a contract to write his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and its arrival triggered an uproar. “That created a sensation, partly because of the content—the prose was great, but he also frankly talked about homosexuality,” says Henderson. “And then there was this amazing photograph of him on the back cover: it’s Truman on the sofa, like a little doe, looking right in the camera.”
Afterward, Capote continued his ascent by writing theater, non-fiction and the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which he eventually adapted into a film starring Audrey Hepburn. But he was truly catapulted into pop culture’s center stage with the publication of In Cold Blood, his “non-fiction novel.” After being inspired by a brief New York Times article about a murder in Kansas, he unexpectedly decided to move to the small town of Holcomb and write about the story. He was joined by Harper Lee, his childhood friend and author of To Kill A Mockingbird, who served as his research assistant and was crucial in building relationships with the locals. “Out there in the wheat fields, someone like Truman Capote, coming with his full length fluffy mink coat and his long cigarette holder, he’s not going to be instantly acceptable,” Henderson says.
In Cold Blood was both an innovative creation and a massive mainstream success. He was at the forefront of the New Journalism movement, in which authors experimented with many of the customs of journalism to create compelling narratives from real-life events. Capote reported the story truthfully, but also embellished it by creating atmosphere and speculating on characters’ emotions. Although this drew criticism from some, it generated massive sales and provoked admiration from many in the reporting business. “My dad was a reporter,” Henderson says, “and I remember him reading this book and being wowed by it.”
After the book’s success, Capote concentrated on enjoying his celebrity rather than producing literature. “The social high point of his life was the November 1966 ball he threw for Katharine Graham in New York, the Black and White Ball,” says Henderson. “Everybody came wearing masks. It was the social event of the sixties.” But Capote’s instinct for writing the story sabotaged his elite status. After working for years on a memoir he called Answered Prayers, published excerpts showed that he revealed intimate secrets about many of his high-society friends. Henderson says, “He published part of this tell-all memoir in 1975, and most everyone slammed the door on him. So his social outlets and all of his wonderful connections were gone.
Finding himself in the same position he’d been in as a child, so many years earlier—a social outcast, on the outside, looking in—his already-present dependence on alcohol and drugs was exacerbated. A 1989 play called Tru depicts Capote’s final days. “He’s all alone now, in his United Nations Plaza apartment, his wonderful luxe apartment, and nobody will speak to him,” Henderson says.”He’s alone there with his pills, his vodka, his cocaine and chocolate truffles.” As his health problems were complicated by his drug habits, he sank ever deeper into depression. On August 25th, 1984, he died of liver cancer at the age of 59.
Despite the tragedy of his end, Capote largely achieved his chief goal in life. “He didn’t seem to want to be known as the greatest writer of mid-twentieth century,” says Henderson. “I didn’t see anything in what I read that said that was his mission. What he really wanted to be a famous celebrity.”