Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hamlin Garland and Grant Wood

 I used to teach Art Appreciation from time to time; I had some studio arts background (some art historians haven't) and I didn't mind at all helping Freshmen fulfill a requirement.  But I insisted on teaching medium by medium and based on works of all kinds and eras and cultures, from the point of view of the artists choosing media and showing how they served the media and the media the artist.  I loved using works that did NOT appear in the textbooks, especially when they served a number of purposes.  And, so far as I could, I preferred using things that artists like and that freshman students like, too.  One artist I liked to use was Grant Wood (the inevitable American Gothic was in the textbook, so I did the others that I like, especially those lithographs, some of them WPA funded, which show rural Iowa, the horses with winter coats facing a blizzard, and a farm boy pouring over his head a bucket full of water from the trough, with the title "Sultry Night").  I do not regard it as homoerotic, nor did the WPA, nor did my students.  But it is evocative of the end of a hard day's work in the fields, and it is (as they all are) beautifully composed and executed, and it also shows the lithograph as at once fine art and popular art.  I had a hard time finding it on line, and this link to "Sultry Night" is not a good reproduction, but it must serve.  The vultures who want to make capital of its nudity and the folks (unlike those of Depression America) who think all nudity dirty make this print hard to find on line.
My own blog posting last month, on whether Americans really do read according to gender, had made me remember the big, thick Reader that we had for English class in Grade 8 (yes, there still are graded readers, or there were when I taught at St. Hilda's in the 1970s, just as there had been in the late 1940s, issued by California State Textbooks).  That reader contained part of Hamlin Garland's A Son of the Middle Border.  I never had read the whole book and, suspecting that it might really be as good as the textbook editors thought, I went on line and chose to buy it for Kindle at 99¢ (you can get it Free, but I thought that "improved" for eBook was worth a dollar).
I now am halfway through the book, and I find it to be the masterpiece that it is supposed to be.  How good his fiction or verse or essays are, I do not know.  But Garland in this memoir or autobiography has such great literary and personal integrity, such real reticence where called for, such honesty—everything you can ask for in a writer—that I thought I'd do everyone under 60 years of age, probably, a favor by recommending it without reserve.  I mean, no one that I know has mentioned it to me recently, and perhaps there is a tendency to toss it in with, say, Fennimore Cooper.  It really isn't like what an outline description of it might make you think.  You might neglect to go back and read it, as I had done.  How useful it is, repeatedly, to be writing a blog; doing so makes me think of so many things that often I don't know what to choose and (as you have seen) procrastinate by posting flowers.
As for Grant Wood, many people who talk about him have no idea how excellent he is, purely as an artist.