Feb/Mar 2012

Homage to the Rare

A wide-ranging reminiscence by a leading literary critic evokes an exceptional world

James Gibbons

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Anni Albers, Black-White-Red, 1964 (reproduction of a 1927 original), cotton and silk, 68 x 46".

“Sometimes, the shortest path between two points is serpentine,” writes Christopher Benfey, a professor and author of several studies of nineteenth-century literature and art, in this digressive mix of memoir, art criticism, and historical essay. It comprises autobiographical recollections, a coming to terms with his aging parents, and an account of his extended family that includes, on his father’s side, the artists Josef and Anni Albers. The book also considers what the North Carolina Piedmont has given to American culture, whether through brickwork and pottery, or the avant-garde arts mecca of Black Mountain College (led for fifteen years by Josef Albers), and is a paean to the land of North Carolina, chiefly its remarkable clay. If this weren’t enough to cover, more themes are braided through his tale—Quakerism, fairy tales, and the myth of the Minotaur, among others. The book is governed by associative logic and unexpected junctions, much as Benfey’s previous volume, A Summer of Hummingbirds, explored the buzzing currents in the “intersecting worlds” of Dickinson, Twain, Stowe, and the painter Martin Johnson Heade. Here the subject matter spans a wider range and is more personal, and if the book’s far-flung speculations don’t cohere, one suspects that Benfey doesn’t want them to. Not surprisingly for someone who has written copiously about Dickinson, he is so enamored of the suggestive fragment and unlikely correspondence that his method all but precludes a larger sense of wholeness.

The book is dedicated to Benfey’s mother, Rachel, an artist raised in the “red-clay world” of rural North Carolina as the daughter of a master bricklayer. Benfey recounts Rachel’s courtship with a charismatic Quaker student named Sergei Thomas in the book’s opening chapter. In April 1948, six weeks before the couple’s wedding date, Sergei drowned in a boating accident. The following year Rachel married Benfey’s father, the chemistry professor Otto Theodor Benfey, known as Ted, who had fled Berlin and the Nazis as an eleven-year-old in 1936 and joined his émigré German-Jewish family in the US after the war.

In death, Sergei became “frozen in time . . . always young and handsome and strong, always twenty-two.” Athletic and idealistic, he seems not to have possessed a single flaw. Benfey maintains an exalted view of Sergei by doing little to make him three-dimensional: His exploration of Sergei’s time as a conscientious objector is interwoven with more general, laudatory remarks about the contributions of pacifist Quakers during World War II, and by having Sergei be a representative figure of this history, Benfey leaves him intact as an idealized phantom.

Having the memory of such a paragon haunting a marriage might cause difficulties, but it doesn’t seem to have troubled Benfey’s father. When asked about Sergei, Ted merely notes that it was, in fact, his letter of condolence to Rachel that had brought them together. Ted appears unflappable, enigmatically so, judging from the chapter titled “The Snuffbox,” in which Benfey makes an emotionally difficult journey to Berlin with Ted and, hoping to “probe the wound” of his father’s forced childhood exile, finds that Ted had “moved on long ago.” For Benfey and his mother, Sergei’s ghost never really goes away, and occasionally emerges in unsettling ways. Once, after his mother dreamed that Sergei had returned, Benfey—at college, and well on his way to his vocation as a literary man—wrote a poem confessing that “Sometimes I think that I invented / the circumstances of your death, planned / the canoe trip a month before your marriage, plotted / like a spiteful river god to twist / the currents around your boat / and suck you down.” And in the fall of 2009, the elderly Rachel, whose mental condition has deteriorated after a series of strokes, spends several weeks planning her wedding to Sergei. “I wanted another life,” she tells her son.

One wishes that Benfey would comment on these irruptions of feeling. The poem, though expressed with the polish of an accomplished undergraduate, communicates a volatile mix of guilt and resentment toward Sergei—what might have lurked within that “spiteful river god” of Benfey’s former self? Does Rachel’s remark reveal genuine disappointment over her life with Ted and her sons, or is it to be taken as sadly fanciful as her impossible wedding plans? A different sort of memoirist would delve into these questions, however painful they might be. Benfey wants to confront and avoid the history of his immediate family—perhaps understandably, given his parents’ advanced age—and his fragmentary method allows him to be not just elliptical but evasive. The family-memoir portion of Red Brick is poignant in many particulars, but, because the reader is left with lingering questions, it is unsatisfying.

Benfey is at his best in passages where he takes his “promptings from the material order of things,” as he writes in his prologue, and he is especially alert to the sensual vitality of artifacts. One of Josef Albers’s leaf collages is transformed into a dance performance: “Three pairs of dancing oak leaves . . . leap above the green stage, while a drabber corps of six brown leaves dances below them, like their shadows, perhaps, or their real selves.” He recalls how the surface of a ceramic whiskey jug at his great-grandfather’s house “felt like the skin of an orange.” As the art of pottery is central to Red Brick the book itself might be regarded as a kind of vessel, crafted to bear the disparate elements poured into it. Benfey’s own metaphor for his method is archaeological: “And when the hard work with picks and shovels yields to the more delicate probing with blade and brush, I’ll sift through the red dirt and white sand, looking for shards and fragments and anything else of interest that might lie buried there.” There’s a detachment implied here, and an understated note of wonder at what such a trove of fragments might yield, that pervades Benfey’s treatment of the varied topics he takes up.

In writing about the history of North Carolina pottery manufacture, still flourishing through the work of gifted artists based there today, Benfey emphasizes the specificity of the place and its links to a rich past. “Such regional pottery traditions are rare,” he writes, then quotes the English potter Mark Hewitt, “They are like wildflowers that only grow in certain special soils and microclimates.” His attention to the local also has the virtue of making rural North Carolina seem quite cosmopolitan. Hewitt immigrated to North Carolina to use the region’s clay; among the many transplants working there as potters is a great-grandson of Henri Matisse. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The Jugtown “folk” pottery, to which Benfey devotes a chapter, was founded in 1917 by an urbane couple from Raleigh, the “visionary outsiders” Jacques and Juliana Busbee (names changed from James and Julia, which evidently weren’t sophisticated enough), who prized local pottery but also encouraged new, hybrid forms based on Asian pieces they had seen in New York at the Met.

If Jugtown provides an early chapter in what we might call North Carolina modernism (albeit in a traditionalist cloak), then the heady decades of artistic experimentation at Black Mountain College represent its crowning achievement. Benfey approaches the college through the Alberses, who found refuge there after the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus in 1933. He writes sensitively about the works both Josef and Anni Albers made while at Black Mountain, and particularly about how their attention to fundamental forms and materials was a response to their being uprooted. Whereas the arts of brickwork and pottery are tied to place, the modernist arts practiced and taught by the Alberses express an opposing philosophy, a nomadic aesthetic that emerged out of the experience of exile. “We move more often and always faster from place to place,” Anni Albers wrote, “and we will turn to those things that will least hinder us in moving.” In her classes at Black Mountain, she developed an exercise that she called “starting at the point of zero,” in which her students were asked to imagine the first things they would make and build if they found themselves where “nothing is there,” a pedagogical outgrowth of her displacement.

Noting that he is a “descendent of so many departures,” Benfey reflects that he has adopted the attitude of his extended family on his father’s side, who have “come to live with an underlying conviction about the precariousness of all merely human arrangements.” This isn’t as bleak as it sounds. Red Brick acknowledges such precariousness, but it also makes the case that art, often of a homely or modest sort, can mount a response against it. As Benfey writes: “The god of artistic creation . . . is an artist of serendipity, of adaptation and self-invention. He is still on the move.”

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America.