An illustrator's life
A new biography of N.C. Wyeth
N. C. Wyeth: A Biography
David Michaelis '79
Much of America's best art is illustration. This is true of John James Audubon's depictions of birds; it's also true of N.C. Wyeth's paintings of pirates and giants. The difference is that whereas Audubon was delighted to make his fame and fortune as a wildlife illustrator, Newell Convers Wyeth hated being hailed as America's foremost book and magazine illustrator. He wanted to be remembered as a great landscape artist -- a genre in which he never excelled.
Although Wyeth's mentor was Howard Pyle -- the first painter to make a substantial living from publishing -- Wyeth believed he could use his $1,000 payments from Scribner's and The Saturday Evening Post to buy time to cultivate his "true calling" as an artist. Yet his devotion to family meant there were always more pressing uses for those thousand-dollar checks, and by 1908 -- when he was just 26 years old -- Wyeth found himself thoroughly typecast as an illustrator.
Biographer David Michaelis '79 devotes less time to the business side of Wyeth's life than someone like me -- who has made his own, less celebrated living from books and magazines -- would have wished. But that's because Michaelis does something larger. Step by step, he takes the reader from Wyeth's mother's origins in Switzerland to N.C.'s founding of a kind of Swiss-American colony in the Brandywine Valley to the conclusion of Wyeth's life at a railway crossing near his home.
Michaelis documents in exhaustive detail the development of an artistic dynasty. Yet he also describes an American tragedy. His book opens with a hint of fratricide by an overly protective mother, who begets an overly protective son, who alternately guides and stifles his own children, and ends with the strong suggestion that Wyeth probably seduced one of his daughters-in-law. The Wyeth saga gives new meaning to the phrase "family values."
To keep this complex cast of characters comprehensible, Michaelis includes a Wyeth family tree at the back of the book and 100 pages of supplemental notes. At times distracting, the extraordinary detail of Michaelis's book reinforces the epic nature of his story. Gradually the reader comes to suspect that, perhaps, the grandest achievement of N.C. Wyeth's life was not his illustrations for Treasure Island and The Yearling, but a legacy of wonderfully gifted children and grandchildren -- one of whom, his son Andrew, finally achieved the reputation as a fine artist that had always eluded his father.
-- George Reiger '60
George Reiger is conservation editor at Field & Stream.
Wyeth beckoned, Michaelis listened
In 1981, David Michaelis '79,author of the new biography of the illustrator N.C. Wyeth, went home to Washington, D.C., to spend time with his mother, who was dying of cancer. "It so happened that the time of my mother's death coincided with the reissue of the Scribner's Illustrated Classics series that Wyeth had illustrated," Michaelis recalls. "The first book to be reissued was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. A friend, knowing I was deeply in grief and not sleeping well, gave it to me, saying it was a great book to plunge into. I took refuge in it. The pictures made a huge impression on me. I was reinventing a childhood I'd never had but wanted to have. It was a life raft."
Michaelis read the rest of the series, including Stevenson's Kidnapped, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, and Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island. "I had known about these books as a kid, but I'd never read them," he says. "They came to me when I was very much in a vulnerable moment, and I felt I had some connection to them."
Ten years later, Michaelis -- who in the meantime had worked as a journalist and written two books -- saw a newly released documentary about the Wyeth clan, featuring all five of N.C.'s children talking about their father's influence on their lives. Shortly after that, as if pursued by a Wyeth ghost, Michaelis walked up to a restaurant cash register and was confronted with a portrait of N.C. Wyeth dating from 1913. "I looked at it and said, 'Wow, it's like he's speaking to me from the grave.'" Inspired, Michaelis contacted the editors at Knopf about writing the first full biography of Wyeth. They said he should give it a try.
Michaelis began piecing Wyeth's life together from papers and letters archived at the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University, and Princeton. As he tracked down friends of the family, Michaelis uncovered some ghosts -- gothic tales -- that had haunted the Wyeths' tight-knit Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania, community since Wyeth had died, along with his grandson, when a train plowed into his station wagon 48 years earlier.
At that early stage, the issue that gripped Michaelis involved the death of an eight-month-old child who would have become N.C. Wyeth's uncle. The official record, Michaelis found, listed the child as a victim of "dropsy" -- a term, Michaelis knew, used often by 19th-century authorities to divert attention from the true cause of death. Even more suspiciously, the death appeared in the town register out of order and four months after it had occurred.
KEY TO THE WYETH PSYCHE
A child's death should have been little more than a small, if tragic, footnote within a sprawling, intergenerational biography. But Michaelis believed it held the key for opening the Wyeth psyche. "If you're going to understand N.C. Wyeth in a complex way," he says, "you have to understand the influence of his mother on his life." As Michaelis would later learn, Henriette Zirngiebel, the boy's older sister and eventually N.C.'s mother, was suspected within the family of having lost control of the child's carriage, which plunged into the Charles River. In subsequent years, the infant boy's drowning clearly traumatized her. In her letters, Henriette never mentioned the child when referring to her various siblings. She also reported having "baby nightmares" and told others that she feared she might be physically harmful to her grandson.
To Michaelis, Henriette's horror suggested a family pattern of depression that would set the stage for N.C's own tragedy decades later. Part of N.C.'s depression, Michaelis says, revolved around painting -- a feeling that his book illustrations weren't good enough to be "art." But his gloom grew most devastating late in his life, when he seems to have conducted an affair with his daughter-in-law Caroline. Michaelis's book contains the first published account of that relationship, although he admits to uncertainty about whether it was ever consummated. Michaelis doubts a persistent rumor in the valley -- that the child who perished at N.C.'s side in the train wreck was his love-child. Michaelis also feels divided about whether N.C.'s death was a suicide or an accident. Despite multiple suicide attempts within the Wyeth family, it seems unbelievable to Michaelis that N.C. would endanger his own grandchild while committing suicide.
Michaelis's first visit with the Wyeth family came after a year of unanswered letters and overtures made through intermediaries. Eventually, Michaelis gained entré to the Wyeth family through Paul Horgan, a novelist and Wyeth family friend. Horgan helped Michaelis gain an audience with Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, who suggested Michaelis look over a cache of letters she had. At that point, Michaelis hadn't heard the ugly rumors about the end of N.C.'s life. But by the time he visited David Wyeth, an actor and N.C.'s grandson, Michaelis knew he had to broach suggestions of impropriety. When Michaelis asked, David went off the record and called around to his relatives to see if they felt comfortable talking about it. They did.
The family came to view Michaelis as someone who could edify the rest of them about what really happened in the family's darker corners. At one point, he says, "everybody was quite shocked" when he revealed that N.C.'s brother was gay. Michaelis credits the passage of time for the family's willingness to air their dirty laundry. "I think that after 50 years, you want the full story about the generation behind you to come out," he says. "It frees you; it feels good to have the truth. It's threatening when someone has just died or if people are still living, but 50 years is a very good benchmark."
-- Louis Jacobson '92
Louis Jacobson writes frequently about books for Washington CityPaper.
A voice and a story
From a Sealed Room
Rachel Kadish '91
In this ambitious first novel, Rachel Kadish '91 applies her lyrical prose to a host of weighty topics: love, war, national identity, suffering, redemption, and faith.
These universal themes are explored through the interwoven stories of three Jewish women in Israel: Maya, an American student in love with an abusive Israeli artist; Tami, a bitter Jerusalem housewife; and Shifra, a mysterious, half-mad survivor of Dachau who views Maya as a kind of female American messiah. Israel itself also emerges as a major character, and the story is laced with vivid descriptions of the landscape's fierce beauty as well as its deadly, searing heat.
Told from several points of view, the story, which opens just after the end of the Gulf War, focuses mainly on Maya's emotional awakening. At times the wealth of background information overwhelms the story line, but Maya's present-day struggles and the unfolding of Shifra's history keep the reader intrigued. A lively cast of supporting characters adds punch.
Kadish, whose short fiction has been published in the magazine Story and the most recent Pushcart Prize Anthology, grew up listening to the stories of her grandfather who survived the Holocaust, the legacy of which seems to be the novel's underpinning. Layered with interrelated stories, the novel is a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself and the power of having a voice to tell your story.
Tami, Shifra, and Maya each face difficulties in finding their voices. They also search for identity in various contexts: as an Israeli or an American, in a romantic relationship, or within a family. Their confusion sometimes bogs down the narrative -- it's tricky to create engaging reading out of characters who lack clear voices. And because these women are confronting so many of life's big questions, the trip with them is not always pleasant or easy. But the novel's broad scope and flashes of beautiful prose make From a Sealed Room worth the effort it requires. This is an impressive and thought-provoking debut.
-- Catherine Curan '92
Growing up in South Africa
I've lived in a shack my whole life. It's been difficult to grow up in a place like this because the community has nothing. People don't have proper houses, don't have toilets....When I see whites in their big houses, I still get jealous and angy. I hope the white kids will come and see how we live in Vrygrond. -- Ricardo Thando Tollie, 16 years old.
From No More Strangers Now: Young Voices from a New South Africa, a book for young people that reveals the thoughts of 12 South African teenagers. Interviews by Tim McKee '92. (DK Ink, $19.95)
Just out of college, Peter Bullene Robinson '72 thought he wanted a career in politics, so he signed on to work for his home-state senator Bob Dole in Washington, D.C. A year later, Robinson returned to Kansas City, where he played piano and performed nightclub standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin at the old Muehlebach Hotel (where Harry Truman occasionally played poker). He tried politics once more, in 1980, when he worked again in Washington, but this time for his local congressman. But, the siren call of music still beckoned. "I looked inside myself, and music is what I needed to do," he says. "I've been making a living as a musician since 1975." Robinson, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, Mary, and two children, performs Thursdays through Saturdays at The Morrison House in Alexandria, Virginia. Comparing the world of music to that of politics, Morrison says, "Ethically, it's much simpler than working on the Hill."
A Pilot's Tale and Other Stories, by Robert Steiner '47 (Buy Books on the web.com, $14.95) -- A collection of short stories, including realistic fiction and fantasy. Steiner retired as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland.
Complex Pleasure: Forms of Feeling in German Literature, by Stanley Corngold (Stanford, $49.50) -- Focusing on eight major German writers, the author, a professor of German and comparative literature, demonstrates that the complex pleasure of literature involves the impression of a disclosure. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka, translated and edited by Stanley Corngold (Norton $8.50) -- A fully annotated translation, selections from Kafka's letters and diary entries, and essays offering contemporary perspectives on the novella.
Electric Railways of Japan: Interurbans -- Tramways -- Metros, Vol. 3-Western Japan, by Leroy W. Demery Jr. '75 et al. (The Map Factory, Box 12629, Seattle, WA 98111, $30) -- Part of a series designed to provide travelers and transportation professionals with information about Japan's electric transport systems.
Bacchylides: Complete Poems, translated by Robert Fagles (Yale, $13) -- Choral odes celebrating victories in the Pythian, Isthmian, Nemean, and Olympic games and chronicling the classical gods and heroes. Fagles is the Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Comparative Literature.
Freedom in the Dismal, by Monifa A. Love '76 (Plover Press, $12) -- This epistolary novel tells the story of the relationship between a young black man and his childhood sweetheart, who are separated when he is imprisoned. Love is a poet.
Liberalism and Its Discontents, by Alan Brinkley '71 (Harvard, $27.95) -- In this history of liberalism since the 1930s, the author depicts a dominant political tradition that is far less uniform and stable than it is usually portrayed. Brinkley is a professor of history at Columbia.
Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration, by David M. Reimers '53 (Columbia, $27.50) -- Charts the history of U.S. immigration policy and public reaction to newcomers and offers potential solutions to current immigration issues. Reimers is a professor of history at New York University.
Consciousness in Action, by S.L. Hurley '76 (Harvard, $55) -- Explores the connection and interdependence of ideas of perception and action, tracing these themes from Kant and Wittgenstein through recent work in neuropsychology. Hurley is a professor at the University of Warwick, in England.
Is the Temperature Rising? The Uncertain Science of Global Warming, by S. George Philander (Princeton, $29.95) -- Designed for the nonscientific reader, a guide to new ideas about the factors that determine the world's climate. Philander is a professor of geosciences.