November 26, 2017
(from Face to Face,
published by the National Portrait Gallery, November 7, 2017)
In 1968, one year before his death, during a period in his life already overshadowed by intense anxiety and mounting health problems, the writer and poet Max Eastman sat for the painter Kurt Delbanco. Eastman’s eighth-floor apartment, where his wife Yvette continued to live until she died in 2011, with its high ceilings and large windows, was perfect for the occasion. There would have been ample light, and the New York traffic would have been never more than a distant rumble, sirens, blaring car horns, the shouts of passersby muffled into pleasant indistinctness, faint reminders of a world that had become increasingly irrelevant to Eastman.
It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between two men: the sociable, quirky, round-faced and cheerful Kurt, a “practical optimist,” in his own words, who charmed all who met him, and the occasionally self-righteous, often brooding, and permanently disappointed ex-socialist Max. Through Kurt’s son Nicholas, a novelist Max had taken under his wings, the two men had become friends. When you take someone’s portrait, too much familiarity can be an obstacle, a photographer friend of mine once told me when I had asked him for exactly that favor. Portraits are complicated transactions, to be sure, first between the artist and the sitter, but also between the viewer and the portrait itself. Mental or actual, a portrait is an intellectual process. Proust’s narrator, in Swann’s Way, observes: “We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him . . . they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope.” In the end, Proust suggests, it is our own ideas of a person that we recognize when we see his or her face portrayed, a face from which we leach particular and unique distinction. (more…)
March 11, 2017
In spring 2016, the Lilly Library acquired a handsome ledger bound in sturdy marble-covered boards. Dubbed the “Audubon Ledger” by bookseller Donald Heald, volume had been in the possession of Audubon’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Audubon McCormick until it was sold at Sotheby’s on January 26, 1983. The earliest entry in the book dates from December 10, 1842; the latest was made on February 14, 1844.
The Audubon Ledger is a treasure trove for the scholar: it is chock-full with lists documenting Audubon’s income and expenditures as he was finishing work on the Royal Octavo edition of Birds of America (1840-1844) and beginning to launch his new venture, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Eight pages of draft letters, all in the handwriting of Audubon’s son Victor Gifford, add to the documentary value of the collection. But the Ledger has something else to offer too, something more unexpected. Among the 70-plus pages of lists we find an example of a different kind of bookkeeping, a mysterious page-long aside, in Audubon’s own handwriting, consisting of nothing but a stream of words, slathered on the page in no apparent order and, it seems, with near-complete disregard to meaning. Complete sentences are the exception rather than the rule. (more…)
September 8, 2015
review of Deborah Cramer's splendid book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, & an Epic Journey, just out from Yale University Press. Cramer combines an intensely personal account of following the journey of this small bird with a wide-ranging reflection on how the loss of one species will affect the survival of our species, too.Here is my new
April 28, 2015
review of James Costa's Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species in the Weekly Standard.Here is my recent
March 3, 2014
June 15, 2013
What made the greatness of our great man gone?
Facts about fishes?—reading laws that rule
The glacier’s marche [sic] and move the black moraine?
An eye whose gaze with equal reverence glowed
At a small star-fish, or his Alpine throne?
Or that he founded for our land a school?—
Never to see that harvest which he sowed!—
His large companionship with man, shell, stone,
And every type of the most High? The fool
Who thinketh in his heart there is no God
Stands here in silence. ’Mid our tears and pain
This joy was uppermost: beneath His rod
Bowing, we bless Him for each nobler mind
Whose highest vision science fails to blind.
December 1873 T. W. Parsons
Not his taxonomic achievements (Agassiz first made a name for himself as an expert on Brazilian ichthyology and the fossilized fish of Europe), not his pioneering work in glaciology or marine biology mattered to Parsons, nor the fact that Agassiz had put Harvard on the map as a center of scientific research, not even the warm relations he had maintained, according to Parsons, with all manner of created things. For him, Agassiz was more than merely human. (more…)
June 5, 2013
online essay on "The Reader's Almanac."For more on Agassiz's influence on Transcendentalism, see my new
February 28, 2013
January 31, 2013