Monday, February 23, 2009

An Illuminated Life

13. An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone

It is a rare visit to New York that I do not go to the Morgan Library and Museum. With its extraordinary holdings of illuminated manuscripts, fine bindings, old master prints and drawings, it is a splendid place to while away the hours. Although it was J.P. Morgan's interest and money that began the collection, Belle da Costa Greene, his personal librarian and, later, director of the Morgan Library, was, in large part, responsible for shaping and directing it. He hired her, fresh from Princeton, in 1905, and she remained at the Library until shortly before her death in 1950.

Ardizzone's book concentrates on two main themes: Greene's family background and her love affair with Bernard Berenson.

Greene was born Belle Marion Greener, into a family of color that had been part of the District of Columbia's black élite. Indeed, her father was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard. But when he and her mother, Genevieve, separated, perhaps due to class differences, perhaps because of his political activities in the race arena, Mrs. Greener, by then living in New York, changed her name and she and her children lived as white. Ardizzone is careful to use the term "lived as white" as opposed to "passing" to allow for the very real possibility that they considered themselves white, having a predominantly white ancestry. (Her discussion of the changing "rules" and cultural assumptions regarding racial identity is, indeed, one of the more interesting parts of this book.* ) Belle created the fiction of a Portuguese ancestry to account for her darker complexion, and was often described as "exotic"-looking.

The majority of the book is devoted to Greene's relationship with art historian/art dealer Bernard Berenson, a womanizer of great renown. (Berenson's wife, Mary, vacillated between being a facilitator of his relationships, and getting depressed and angry over them. What a household!) Belle differed from Berenson's other women, though, in that she was a career woman. She couldn't (and wouldn't) drop everything to be with him, and over the years they were apart more than they were together. Although each had needs and desires that the other could not fulfill, their influence on each other was enormous. (Sadly, while her letters to Berenson were saved, his to her were lost when she chose to destroy her personal papers before her death. It is to Ardizzone's credit as an historian that she has been able to write such a credible account of this relationship sans those documents.)

Greene, dubbed by the press the "glamorous librarian", was a mass of contradictions (but then, aren't we all?). She was close to her family, living with them and often being the sole, or major, financial support. Yet she seems to have kept them quite separate from her professional life. She lived as white, but frequently made veiled references to her black ancestry (and surely, if she were open about this, it would have negatively affected her in her profession). She had a tumultuous affair with Berenson, as well as relationships with other men, but the times required that she be as discreet as possible. Despite having made her way in the professional world, she was ambivalent about suffrage and the women's rights movement.

Although Ms. Ardizzone is often repetitious in making her points, her subject matter is so interesting that it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that I missed any real sense of how and why Greene became such a powerful figure in her world of book and manuscript collectors. I wanted more about her work, more about her influence on the development of Morgan's collection, more about how she gained her own expert knowledge. Nevertheless, Ardizzone has written a compelling personal biography about a fascinating woman.

*As it happens, while I was reading this book I saw an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art which included a piece by Adrian Piper, Cornered, on this very theme. Addressing the viewer in video, Piper challenges us to consider our assumptions about how we identify ourselves and others racially. On the wall are two birth certificates for Piper's father, issued a couple of decades apart: one identifies him as "mulatto", the other says that he is "white". Appearance often trumped the "one drop" rule (the laws that said "one drop" of Negro blood made a person black). Indeed, the historic Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the United States Supreme Court, allowing legally mandated segregation, arose from a challenge to such laws in which African-Americans sought to show the illogic of such segregation by the very fact that Mr. Plessy had to tell the train conductor that he was not white. Years later, Mr. Plessy self-identified as white in order to vote.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference Bookfair

There they all are, the hungry hordes, famished for books! Me, too.

The AWP Conference was held in Chicago this year, and the Bookfair was open to the public on Saturday, the last day. I had been advised by a fellow Bookcrosser, who works for AWP, that there would be serious discounts, not to mention a lot of freebies, as exhibitors tried to avoid having to take piles of books and journals back home. How could any self-respecting book lover pass up such an opportunity?

My original plan had been to go to the Bookfair for an hour or so, and then cross the street to Chicago's Snow Days Festival. In the event, I spent over three hours at the fair, and decided to go straight home with my haul. And quite a haul it was. Fortunately, one of the many items thrown my way was a tote bag, which I needed because the one I had brought was nowhere near big enough for all the goodies.

This thing was HUGE!! On the lower level of the Chicago Hilton, I went to the southeast exhibit hall, then the southwest exhibit hall, emerging only to find that there were northeast and northwest exhibit halls as well, all filled with exhibitors anxious to send me home with their goods.

Quite a number of the exhibitors were literary journals, and I was frequently asked if I was a poet or writer, but had to disappoint the folks by saying, "No, I'm a reader!" This did not prevent them from offering me copies of their journals. I tried to restrain myself, and took only one (or at most two) of each that looked interesting. My take ran the gamut from the Victorian Periodicals Review to the University of New Orleans' Bayou Magazine. I also acquired issues of Bookforum and other book reviews, just to make sure that I don't run out of ideas for books to read.

Many poetry broadsides, large and small were being given away, and exhibitors lured us to their tables with temporary tattoos, refrigerator magnets and, at nearly every table, chocolate!

As to books themselves, it's a long list, bought or given. I'm particularly delighted with a few small books. From the Tampa Book Arts Studio of the University of Tampa Press, I purchased Walter Klinefelter's essay, Christmas Books, with a small, tipped-in letterpress image. A curious alphabet book, An Awkward Alphabet, by Nils Ya, from Slack Buddha Press and a Literary House Press edition of Browsing, by John Barth, with linoleum cuts by Mary Rhinelander are a couple of other goodies. A lesson in not throwing away family papers is Ida In Her Own Words: The timeless writings of Ida B. Wells from 1893, edited by her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, who discovered original copies of some of Wells' work in family boxes. There were books of poetry, and one about a poet, John Stubbs' John Donne: The Reformed Soul, an anthology of works by Yiddish women writers, Arguing with the Storm, and one of post-Katrina stories and essays, Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?, and many more.

I've got a lot of reading to do!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A bit behind!

10. Valeria's Last Stand, by Marc Fitten

Set in a small Hungarian village, one so lacking in value that tanks rumbled on by with nary a look-in, Fitten's comic/romantic/fabulous (in the literal sense) novel examines the effect of post-Soviet economics and culture on those whose lives were shaped under the hammer-and-sickle.

Valeria is a grumpy old woman. She disapproves. Of people, of vegetables, of the world around her. Until one day, as she is turning up her nose at the market offerings, she sees the village potter, as though for the first time. And something moves in her. And in the potter. It's difficult. They don't quite know how to behave with each other. Not to mention that he has been keeping company with the woman who runs the local bar. When a chimney sweep with an eye for the main chance arrives in the town, and casts that eye on Valeria, the consequences are startling.

The story has the feel of a folk tale, and, indeed, many of the characters are nameless, described simply as "the potter", "the apprentice", "the mayor". Yet Fitten has created very human characters. None of them are perfect, but none are completely bad, either. Just when you decide you know what's ticking, there's a turn and you're surprised by the change in your viewpoint. It's wonderful, too, that his sensuous, sexy, hard-working, heroine, over whom the potter and sweep come literally to blows, is a woman of sixty-eight.

This is Fitten's first novel. According to an interview in the back of the book, it is the first of "A Paprika Trilogy". I look forward to the rest.

11. The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

One of the noir-est of the noir. Philip Marlowe, private detective. Lone wolf, paladin, man of honor. The usual philosophical drunks and women with "mink[s] that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile". Crooked cops and crooks with a conscience.

Terry Lennox's very rich, very nymphomaniac wife is found dead, her head bashed in. Lennox takes it on the lam to Mexico, and then is found dead with a bullet in his brain and a confession in front of him. But did he really do it? A lot of people want Marlowe to think so, and not to look into the case. But then he gets dragged into trying to save an alcoholic, best-selling novelist, and, as with any good noir novel, there's a connection.

Also as in any good noir novel, nobody is what they seem or means what they say. Mysteries are "solved", but there are no tidy endings, no real heroes or villains. The atmosphere is all. And there is plenty of that here.

12. Other People's Dirt: A Housekeeper's Curious Adventures, by Louise Rafkin

Well, they're not all that curious, and they're not all Rafkin's adventures. Either she simply didn't have enough to fill a book, or she felt the need to be "serious". So interspersed with anecdotes of her cleaning jobs, we are treated to interviews with "dirty" house cleaners, her family's former maid, and members of "Messies Anonymous". Not to mention an extraordinarily self-involved letter to the surviving lover of an old friend, a letter that read as though it were written with an eye to publication.

Rafkin likes to clean, but she doesn't have to, and so one gets the impression, even though it may be unfair, of a dilettante. Too, although she mentions long-term clients, there's a sense that she flits from place to place. There are amusing anecdotes here, but in the end it's not a very satisfying read.