Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Artists' memoirs

After finishing Van Gogh's Letters, I cast around for another art book to read and lit upon a little volume called The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin - translated by Van Wyck Brooks - a volume in the lovely little Traveller's Library series (Heinemann 1931) - and tore through it last night in two hours. Gauguin's refrain throughout is "This is not a book." It's a collection of memories, thoughts about life, and odd shocking stories. Early on Gauguin recounts his own version of living with Van Gogh in Arles, including the now-infamous ear incident and its aftermath. Later in the book, he tells a story called "The Pink Shrimps" about Van Gogh selling a small painting of a plate of pink shrimps to what is essentially an art pawn shop for one coin, then immediately giving his coin away to a streetwalker outside who asks for his help. Gauguin then speculates that he himself will live to see the day when he walks into an auction room and sees "The Pink Shrimps" sell for hundreds of francs. Well. Little did he know. I'm sick of artists having to struggle for money to make their art, whatever it is. When the great things remembered about a society are always its arts (painterly, literary, musically, otherwise). Made by individual artists. But, off the soapbox.

Gauguin didn't know what the answer was to the plight of the starving artist. He wrote,

"If I believed that speeches were of any use in these matters, I should give a lecture addressed to those who are not artists, telling them to 'Support the artists.'

But by what right can you say to your neighbour, 'Support me?' You must resign yourself to the fact that some will be rich and some poor. For more than thirty years I have been watching the efforts of all sorts of groups and societies and I have never seen anything that counted but individual effort." (p.204)

He also said, "Do not attempt to read Edgar Poe except in some very reassuring spot." (p.105) Which made me laugh out loud. Overall the book is quite shocking for its time and I almost can't believe that it was even published in a trade edition at all. Van Wyck Brooks must have had quite a time translating it. The ethos of the book can be summed up thusly: "Without being a buffoon, one ought to be able to make a few observations." (p.86)

I didn't think much of Gauguin when I studied art history way back when, but then several years ago I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when a huge Gauguin show was there. I almost didn't buy the extra ticket to the show, thinking Oh, he's ok, but maybe I'll go out to lunch instead... but I bought the ticket and saw the show, and afterward, thought GAUGUIN! Genius, GENIUS! And I still think that. I remember being disgusted with the postcards in the gift shop afterwards, because not one matched his colors, which were extraordinary. More art memoirs: this morning I picked up John La Farge's memoir again, which I started last year and never finished, An American Artist in the South Seas. Book report to follow, sometime soon. Meanwhile, The Reader's Encyclopedia, a few items from the Ws:

Walking Stewart. The nickname of John Stewart (d. 1822), an English traveler, who traveled on foot through Hindustan, Persia, Nubia, Abyssinia, the Arabian Desert, Europe, and the United States. He is described as

"a most interesting man, ... eloquent in conversation, comtemplative ... and crazy beyond all reach of helebore, ... yet sublime and divinely benignant in his visionariness. This man, as a pedestrian traveler, had seen more of the earth's surface ... than any man before or since." - De Quincey, (p.1183) (But did he write any memoirs...??)

Wardour Street English. A phrase coined in 1888 in disapprobation of a translation of the Odyssey by William Morris, with particular reference to the affected use of archaic words and phrases. Wardour Street was known for its pseudo-antique furniture. (pp.1187-1188)

Water-Babies, The, A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby. A fantasy (1863) by Charles Kingsley, concerning a small chimney-sweep named Tom who falls into the river. (p.1192) (Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and two characters in this long, very odd, and deeply wonderful Victorian children's tale.)

Widener, Harry Elkins (1885-1912). American book collector, lost on Titanic. Widener Memorial Library, opened June 1915 at Harvard, was given by his mother. (p.1208)

Widsith. One of the oldest English poems (seventh century?) in the Exeter Book. It concerns a wandering minstrel and his travels. (p.1209) (Another medieval poem to track down. Perhaps I should have pursued a life in academia... medieval studies... PhD... No.)

Winterich, John Tracy (1891-). American bibliophile who, during World War I, was on the staff of Stars and Stripes and received the Purple Heart Medal. After the war he was for fifteen years managing editor of the American Legion Monthly, joined PM in 1940, worked for the Bureau of Public Relations, and became managing editor of The Saturday Review of Literature. He is an authority on first editions and book collecting. Twenty-Three Books (1939); Another Day, Another Dollar (autobiographical; 1947), etc. (pp.1217-1218) (His book A Primer of Book Collecting is a classic. I've never read his memoir - now I want to.)

Wise, Thomas James (1859-1937). English bibliographer who also indulged himself in literary forgery. Cf. Wilfred Partington, Forging Ahead: The True Story of the Upward Progress of Thomas James Wise (1939). (p.1219) (And a must-read, about Wise, the sublimely restrained book An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (1934) by John Carter and Graham Pollard, who first broke open this literary scandal. More on Wise and his forgeries, which quickly became collectible themselves, here.)

Worde, Wynkyn de. Real name Jan van Wynkyn (d. 1534?). English printer and stationer, born in Alsace and early in his career an apprentice to William Caxton, He published a number of well-known books of the time, including the fourth edition (1498) of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (p.1225) (I've always loved Wynkyn de Worde's printer's device.)

Longer entries to seek out on some quiet afternoon: The Waste Land, Noah Webster, Orson Welles, white, the many many many fascinating Williamses, wonder, the Nine Worthies (there were two sets of them - who were they, what did they do?), and the Woolfs. Only a few pages left. Whatever shall I attempt next? Learning Latin, perhaps? My eyes aren't up to the compact OED behind me, even with the magnifying glass. Back to the regular day-to-day? We've got February looming and I need a vacation. From myself. Is that possible?

I recently came across Walking Stewart in Paul Collins' The Trouble with Tom (about what became of Tom Paine's bones) and was compelled to research him. Stewart was a companion of Paine's during the latter's last days in New York. Absolutley fascinating character. Walked the world. Wrote and published a great deal. I would love to write his biography. Instead of burdening your comments with a lot of stuff about Stewart, I'll write up a post about him sometime today (while the baby is napping).
And a quick note on Harry Widener. The Wideners were an enormously wealthy Philadelphia family and one of their estates, Lynnewood Hall is just a few minutes from my home.

This picture doesn't do it justice. It really is a magnificent building. My wife and I have long joked that we will buy it when we get rich. My wife's father dubbed the Widener house "Bugger-All" (as if you were saying Bugger Hall) because if we had the kind of money to buy and keep it, that's what we'd say to the world.
Hey Ed, thanks for stopping in! I've yet to read "The Trouble with Tom" - why I don't know, because I've read everything else Paul Collins has written. Of course he would know about Walking Stewart, though - just the kind of thing Collins would like. He's that rare bird, a Contemporary Antiquarian, and I love him for it! Can't wait to read your post about Stewart, I'll be checking your blog for it.

And thanks for the info on Widener. I know someone related to the Elkinses of the family. Elkins Park and such. Mercy mercy, some fancy digs, to be sure!
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