February 1, 2012


On Monday, February 6 at 7 p.m., Princeton University English professor Jeff Nunokawa will commemorate Dickens’s 200th birthday with a talk in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7, the author’s actual birthday, a discussion of David Copperfield will take place in the Fireplace Area on the library’s second floor, and a screening of the 1935 film version of the novel is set for Wednesday, February 8, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room.

The same day the New York Times runs yet another gloom and doom story about the book business (“The Bookstore’s Last Stand”), I’m taking New Jersey Transit into Manhattan to see the Morgan Library’s “Dickens at 200” exhibit, which will continue through February 12. The book I’m reading is a 1929 edition of George Gissing’s study, Charles Dickens (1898). The woman sitting in front of me is also reading an actual hardcover book (can’t see the title) like the “actual books” the Times article discovers sharing the same room with “a virtual wallpaper of Nook color devices” in the facility where Barnes and Noble “finds itself locked in the fight of its life.” I’m trying to get my mind around the idea that the Nook, “a relative e-reader latecomer” is “the great e-hope” that, along with Barnes & Noble, is the only thing “standing between traditional book publishers and oblivion.”

The advent of Nook, e-readers, and e-hope, seems no more plausible than the phenomenon described by Gissing, who supposes that for at least 25 years of Dickens’s life “there was not an English-speaking household in the world, above the class which knows nothing of books, where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance.”

The Serial Solution

At the Morgan, which is an easy walk from Penn Station, there’s a glass case displaying a stack of faded gray green booklets comprising the original serial-form appearance of Dickens’s first work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers. These slender, unprepossessing 32-page pamphlets were the medium through which Dickens became a household name (and the founder and editor of a journal he called Household Words). Every novel he wrote made its appearance not as a completed entity but piecemeal. According to Joel J.Brattin’s “Dickens and Serial Publication” (www.pbs.org/wnet/dickens), the publishing of fiction in parts “grew dramatically in the 1830s” due to “the wild success” of Pickwick. Among the advantages of serial publication was that a novel in monthly installments cost “only one shilling a month, instead of a guinea (21 shillings) or more for an entire novel.” It not only expanded the market for fiction, “as more people could afford to buy on the installment plan,” but also offered “the opportunity to advertise, as ads could easily be incorporated into the little booklets.” It also “created a greater intimacy with the audience, something Dickens always relished.”

Dickens also must have relished knowing that these little booklets were being passionately consumed by all levels of his readership, from the upstairs lords and ladies in Victorian incarnations of Downton Abbey to the footmen and scullery maids downstairs in the kitchen. While poor folks would have nothing but a stack of read-to-rags fragments at the conclusion of each novel, the well-to-do could take the monthly numbers to a bookbinder and have them bound into a single volume.

Could it be that, given the Nooking, Kindling, and e-virtualizing of the bound book, the serial form (reading “on the installment plan”) might be revived as a possible antidote to the shifting, drifting reality of bookland? A dangerous idea no doubt. Imagine the mayhem had the Harry Potter books appeared in monthly issues. The rub is, no living writer could do what Dickens did. Given his drive, his energy, and his unflinching pursuit of each of his many goals, Dickens could probably save the book business all by himself — if we could just conjure him up again.

His Handwriting

While I was at the Morgan a tour was in progress, vividly led by a woman whose delivery would have warmed the cockles of Elaine May’s heart, although Dickens may have been fuming in his grave to hear himself referred to as a dandified control freak with terrible handwriting who hypnotized his wife, lorded it over his home for fallen women, badmouthed America, walked 30 miles and wrote 30 pages every day, and looked better without a beard.

Anyway, it’s Dickens the writer who should be celebrated above and beyond the mesmerist, the philanthropist, the tourist, or the actor, though those sides of him were active and necessary elements in the chemistry of his genius. The essence of “Dickens at 200,” however, is his “wretched” handwriting (as the woman keeps reminding us), enlarged and legible samples of which adorn the gallery walls: “I am a reformer heart and soul” is above the display of letters related to “Philanthropy,” while the letters written during his first visit to America are on view under the heading, “They flock about me as if I were an idol.” The area devoted to the notes he made when plotting his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1862-65), is headed “The story weaver at his loom.” These jottings roughly outlining the first three chapters of a book that grew to 959 pages can be discerned in the background of the caricature of Dickens occupying the exhibit’s poster image, shown here. It’s as if the author were leaning on his walking stick against a coded landscape of his pen’s own making, a free-form force field of words, the DNA of one of his darkest novels. Look closely and you can make out the roman numerals above a scattering of notes for each chapter of the vast work he was composing 150 years ago while the Union and the Confederacy fought the Civil War. Gazing down at the various manuscript pages in the year 2012, you can almost see the movement of his hand and hear the rapid scratch-scratch of the pen scoring the surface of the page.

When you think of the quantity of ink Dickens lavished on these documents, the rivers of prose flowing from his pen, it makes sense that his portable ink well is one of the two personal objects on display, along with a brass seal given him by his friend and eventual biographer, John Forster. The ink well is disarmingly small, about the size of a cigarette lighter, but it has a powerful presence.

His Illustrators

Dickens illustrators George Cruikshank, Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), and John Leech, all on display in “Dickens at 200,” are as indispensable to the fabric woven by the “story weaver” as the characters they sketched, such as Cruikshank’s inimitable caricatures of Fagin and Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, Phiz’s Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield, and Leech’s rendering of Scrooge’s phantasmagoric voyage through Christmas past, present, and future. Cruikshank once claimed that he’d given Dickens the plot and characters for Oliver Twist. Nonsense, of course, and yet Cruikshank’s creations, like those of Phiz and Leech, come so uncannily close to matching the style and spirit of scene and character that one can’t imagine the novels without them.

It’s appropriate that William -Hogarth’s Gin Lane is displayed in proximity to Cruikshank’s illustrations for Oliver Twist. That novel’s subtitle, The Parish Boy’s Progress, reflects Dickens’s admiration for Hogarth and series like The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress. According to the commentary, Dickens owned 48 of Hogarth’s engravings.

The day before my trip to the Morgan, I’d paid a visit to the main gallery at Firestone to see Hogarth’s vision of 18th century London in “Sin and the City.” My interest had been roused by George Gissing’s observation that Dickens had “assuredly learnt” from Hogarth, for “it was inevitable that such profound studies of life and character should attract, even fascinate, a mind absorbed in contemplation of poverty and all its concomitants.” It’s impossible to view “The Harlot’s Progress” without thinking of the fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist and the ruin of Little Emily in David Copperfield. Certainly one of the essential connotations of “Dickensian” is based on the author’s commitment to social welfare, whether it involved workhouses for the poor, prisons, public sanitation in London, or, in this case, his support for a home for the redemption of prostitutes (featured under “Philanthrophy” in “Dickens at 200”). The density of detail and Hogarth’s imagery in “The Rake’s Progress” and “Five Stages of Cruelty,” not to mention “Gin Lane,” have the boldness and descriptive density Dickens brought to his depictions of London squalor a hundred years later.

Dickens at Penn Station

An hour shared with Dickens and his illustrators in a relatively small gallery after skipping lunch can put a certain charge into the look of Manhattan street life on an unusually fine day in late January. A walk down 36th Street through the prolonged zig-zag pedestrian walkway around a construction site, evoked something wayward, crooked, and, well, Dickensian. All the dogs I saw were Dickens dogs, or, if you like, Hogarth dogs. The common denominator was England.

In the crowded Jersey Transit waiting area I found what seemed to be the only empty seat. The tension of anticipation before the frantic rush down to the train was all-encompassing. I saw nary a Kindle nor a Nook (as if I knew the difference) and few actual books. With a 20-minute wait ahead of me, I took out my copy of Gissing’s Charles Dickens and started reading at random:

“I had but to lean, at night, over one of the City bridges, and the broad flood spoke to me in the very tones of the master. The very atmosphere declared him; if I gasped in a fog, was it not Mr. Guppy’s “London particular”? — if the wind pierced me under a black sky, did I not see Scrooge’s clerk trotting off to his Christmas Eve in Somers Town? We bookish people have our consolations for the life we do not live. In time I came to see London with my own eyes, but how much better when I saw it with those of Dickens!”

The Morgan Library and Museum is located at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 36th Street. The undated caricature of Dickens is by Alfred Bryan (1852–1899). Gift of Miss Caroline Newton, 1974. The autograph manuscript page from Our Mutual Friend (1862–65) was purchased by the Morgan in 1944; MA 1202–3. 

November 30, 2011

timthumbReaders of Raymond Carver may recognize the variation on the title story from one of his most famous collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Roberta Smith used a version of the same title for a discussion of “the fashionably obtuse language of the art world” four years ago (New York Times December 23, 2007).

In terms of scale, “The Painterly Voice: Bucks County’s Fertile Ground,” which will be at the James A Michener Art Museum through April 1, 2012, is epic, with 200 works by more than 40 artists in three galleries. Curator Brian Peterson’s stated wish is to avoid “stuffy and obscure exhibit labels,” and his casual, person-to-person presentation of this massive exhibit is a refreshing departure from artspeak and the standard curatorial rhetoric, even though he sometimes risks a dumbing down of his subject. After confiding, for example, that from the beginning of his 20 years at the Michener, he’s “dreamed of doing this exhibit,” he ends by reducing “something special” to “a whole heckuva lot of really good paintings.” In his well-meaning attempt at down-to-earth diction, the curator inadvertently brings to mind George W. Bush’s notorious backslap to the incompetent FEMA chief after the debacle of Katrina (“Heckuva job, Brownie”).

The Show Online

Doing anything like full justice to a show of this scope is impossible. That’s why the Michener has put a large portion of the exhibit online, complete with commentaries and a world of information and imagery (http://www.michenermuseum.org/catalogue/painterly-voice). At the museum, QR codes are available for scanning.

The online format makes possible another look at some of the works that held me when I was there in person, including highlights from previous shows, such as Robert Spencer’s cityscapes, and Harry Leith-Ross’s Nightfall on Union Street and The Fair. One piece that kept me gazing beyond a minute was Goldie Peacock’s House, an oil on canvas from 1935 by Charles Ward (1900-1962). In its free-form feeling and sense of fun, it stands apart. There’s no reason why talking about this work shouldn’t be fun as well, and Mr. Peterson catches the spirit of the piece by citing George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (“those buildings are dancing, the trees are dancing, with each other, with themselves”).

Garber’s Light

If any single artist is the star of this show, it’s Daniel Garber (1880-1958), who was born in Indiana and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts and in Europe before settling down a few miles north of New Hope in Lumberville. The work that opens the exhibit is Garber’s 1935 painting of his mentor and colleague, Bucks County artist William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938). Also given a prominent place and featured on the cover of the museum’s Guide to Events and Programs is Garber’s 1915 portrait of his nine-year-old daughter Tanis.

“Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.” Although these lines from Emerson are in the commentary accompanying Garber’s landscape, Willows – Noonday (1955), they are even more applicable to what the painter does with the interiors featuring his wife and daughter. Works like Tanis (1915) test the notion of “what we talk about when we talk about art.” How do you react to the blatant beauty of this image of a lovely child wrapped in a sort of diaphanous cloud while spring explodes around her with a brilliance that is almost painful to contemplate? The curator chooses to talk in vivid extremes, “her hair and blouse are lit up like fiery spotlights, as if their very molecules are on fire,” as if “a fairy has touched them with a magic wand …. This is the morning of the day the world was born [Peterson’s italics].”

The curator’s enthusiasm is understandable. It’s a stunning painting. Keeping the notion of talking about art in mind, I emailed the image, along with the other Garbers, to a friend I thought might enjoy seeing them. I made my own feelings abundantly clear (“The way he uses light is amazing!”), assuming she would feel the same way. Not a chance. “It’s a little twee for me, if you know what I mean” was her response to Tanis. If we’d been standing together in front of the painting, I might have tried to downgrade or justify my use of “amazing” by admitting that I felt sympathetic to the idea of the painter’s child, who was born in Paris, died a resident of Bucks County in 1990, and can be seen as a 17-year-old beauty in Garber’s serenely lovely Morning Light, Interior (1923). I might also have admitted that while “twee” wasn’t the word I’d have used, I could see a commercial touch in the soft, smooth, cleanly lighted image that gave it the overtones of a Maxfield Parrish illustration in a story book.

When we talk about art, we’re often talking outside or beyond or beneath it. How important is what we say? What difference does it make? And in the face of great art, what can be said that doesn’t sound either simplistic (“Wow, that’s amazing!”) or pompous? People conversing in the presence of the work will often temper their opinions for the sake of being agreeable, however much they may disagree. Or they may have other things on their mind. The day I was at the Michener most of the talk was not about the art but the effects of the previous weekend’s freak October snow storm. As I admired Garber’s The Studio Wall (1914), which my friend liked, too, someone was talking about the power outage. They were still without electricity and I was thinking, “Here’s power! Here’s electricity!” The Studio Wall is pure enchantment: the sunny day delicately reflected in muted tones of lilac and yellow, the classic beauty of the pose struck by Garber’s wife as she holds a small vase while wearing a vision in the guise of a kimono. Voice or no voice, the painting speaks in colors and images and effects, a form of communication that bypasses language, goes straight to the senses, and stops the conversation cold.

The Human Touch

In Daniel Garber’s painting of his mentor and colleague William Langson Lathrop, completed three years before Lathrop’s death in 1938, Lathrop is shown standing at close range, holding a pipe, his other hand thrust in the pocket of a comfortably lived-in looking jacket burnished in shades of brown and reddish gold somewhat like the hues in the forest floor of Lathrop’s work, The Forest (1918). In fact, the elderly painter might be dressed in one of his own land- or sky-scapes, his vest a field of flowers touched with the pearly pastel light of the sky in Evening Before the Storm (ca. 1898), his trousers showing the mottled pastel shades of the sky in Burning Fields, Bucks County (1898). Blazing behind the handsome, white-bearded man with the faraway look in his eyes is a wild, dark, free-form background, streaked and shot with vivid skeins of purple, orange, and red as intense as a nocturnal psychodrama out of Van Gogh.

Garber’s mastery of light, so brilliantly expressed in the paintings centered on his daughter and wife, becomes a subtle secondary presence in the portrait of Lathrop, touching the hand holding the pipe, the sleeve, the pocket of the coat, and as if attracted by the quiet thoughtful intensity of Lathrop’s gaze, the face, the white beard, the hair, and, the deepest, most telling touch, the faint semblance of light on his forehead. Stand in front of this work long enough and it’s possible to imagine that the man’s spirit, his thought, his art, his humanity, his vulnerability, everything he is, has been serenely, definitively illuminated. But then, as if to counter all that lofty verbiage, you have Lathrop’s nose, which appears to be inflamed, irritated, perhaps from a cold, a rash, the rubbing of a pair of spectacles. That suggestion of inflamed flesh is a deterrent to aesthetic overstatement. It says, “Keep things real, on the human level, where noses are blown, eyes get rheumy, and knuckles chapped, and where a pipe, like a paintbrush, can be an old friend.”

A Note on the Curator

Brian Peterson makes his priorities clear at the outset by invoking artist Marianne Werefkin’s observation as the epigraph for “The Painterly Voice,” (“There is no history of art — there is the history of artists”) and by placing Garbers’s painting of Lathrop at the entrance of the show. Curious to know a bit more about the chief curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum, I came upon some information I think is worth sharing. Four years ago, Mr. Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to putting together this magnum opus of Bucks County art, and coming to terms with a devastating illness, he’s published a memoir, The Blossoming of the World: Essays and Images, illustrated with his own photographs.

Note: I’ve never dedicated a column to anyone until now. In one sense, every piece I write is dedicated to an ideal reader or readers, and one of my ideal readers was Everett Dale Gross, the contractor who for all purposes rebuilt the interior of the house we’ve been living in since 1986. Though he was known to most of his longtime customers and friends as Dale, we have always called him Everett. Of all the people I know, writers, poets and academics, doctors, lawyers, and librarians, this rugged Vermonter came closest to actually speaking in the direct, down to earth, no-nonsense voice Curator Brian Peterson seems to be striving for in his commentary. Everett died last week at 80, and I know we aren’t the only homeowners in Mercer County who are living in and appreciating every day of our lives the interior he built. All the moldings, doors, bookcases, closets, from the frames on the windows to the tiles on the kitchen floor are due to his handiwork, works of his straightforward art.