I’ve become a fan of Christopher Benfey’s books, mixes of history, art, and biography, underlaid with literary history. Benfey is an English professor at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, a specialist in Stephen Crane and Emily Dickinson and seemingly the entirety of 19th century American literature.
But his books are anything but pure literary studies. He traces connections between disparate people, places and artworks. The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), his best book that I have read, begins with Herman Melville and ends with Martin Heidegger, which turns out to be completely logical once I follow his path. A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade (2008) – well, see title. With Benfey, you have to include the subtitle.
His books are like American non-fiction cousins of W. G. Sebald’s novels. Another relative is Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which ranges widely across de Waal’s wide-ranging family history, moving from Paris to Austria to Tokyo with ease. Benfey’s last book, which I just finished, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay (2012) very strongly resembles Hare. Both authors, for example, describe their training as potters in Japan, even if for Benfey it was just a teenage episode (de Waal is now one of the world’s greatest living potters). No surprise to de Waal thanked in the acknowledgements.
Where the motif of the hummingbird flits through A Summer of Hummingbirds, in Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay it is clay* – different kinds of clay, different kinds of pots, and different kinds of artists, with pottery ranging from North Carolina folk pottery to the avant garde designs of Black Mountain College artists, and artists ranging from his mother, a potter, to his great-aunt Anni Albers, among the greatest fabric artists ofthe 20th century. Thus Benfey’s great-uncle is the painter Josef Albers.
The book and its string of connections are based on Benfey’s own life an family, so it is effectively a memoir that reaches outside of the family in various ways. It helps, for this kind of book, to be related to some famous artists. He is related to the 18th century American naturalist William Bartram, too, so there is a chapter about that, Bartram’s wandering around the American southeast. Benfey’s father was a chemist who, like the Bauhaus-affiliated Alberses, fled the Nazis. He invented the spiral periodic table of elements.
I know, it is hardly fair. The book almost writes itself.
The best section is the middle, on the Alberses and Black Mountain College. The middle chapter is “The Meander,” about the pattern common in ancient European and American art, but also, secretly, about Benfey’s method.
During these forays on the site of what had once been a vital and creatively intense community, I was groping for a metaphor to capture the proceedings. I wanted a dominant form that would somehow link our own zigzag path with the artistic concerns of the Alberses. As we began to retrace our route through the maze of streets near Black Mountain, I realized that the key had been there all along, in the meander pattern so dear to Josef and Anni. (152-3)
At Black Mountain, Anni Albers
led her students to discover what she called, somewhat mysteriously, “the event of a thread.” I had sometimes imagined her as a modern Ariadne, leading the way out of the Labyrinth. (147)
This is just what Benfey’s books do. Ah, come on, all of that stuff doesn’t go together. But no, it does, in the right hands.
* Clay and Quakers.