Living Energy: the Abstract Expressionist Paintings of Michael West
A work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way.
After her divorce from theater actor Randolph Nelson, to whom she’d been married a year, Corrine “Michael” West moved from Ohio to New York. She soon found an apartment in the Village and began studying painting at the Arts Students League. Her teacher, Hans Hoffman, was the founder of action painting. His theory of “push and pull” in an image to create form and texture appealed to her, as did his visceral technique of vigorous brush strokes across the canvas. He demanded his students’ total allegiance and in his classroom created a cult-like atmosphere. When another class member, Lorenzo Santillo, suggested that she meet his friend, Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, she at first refused, suspecting that he would be too much like their teacher.
On a cold March evening in 1935, however, West went with Santillo to a party at Gorky’s large studio on Union Square. She was uncomfortable; she had only been in New York a short time and worried that she smacked of provincialism. However, as she strolled down the hallway, looking at Gorky’s powerful pen-and-ink drawings, she was taken by his work. When she finally met Gorky, imposingly tall and shabbily dressed, she was smitten. She’d promised herself she’d never become a muse to the maestro, and now that threat had materialized; she sensed immediately that he would become one of her generation’s greatest painters. Gorky was equally charmed by West and her beauty. She used the name Mikael during this period, but Gorky insisted on calling her Corrine, liking the formal quality of it.
Their relationship quickly developed around their shared passion for painting. Since childhood, Corrine had been a devotee of the arts. As a young girl she’d studied piano, and attended both the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati Art Academy, where she became a skillful performer of Rachmaninoff. Also interested in acting, she was cast by the Cincinnati Actors Theater as Vivian in The Passing of the Third Floor Back. That was where she met and married Nelson, the male lead in the play. In their short year of marriage, she learned that her career was expected to take a back seat to being a wife.
In New York, through Gorky, West gained entrée into the growing bohemian scene of the ’30s, and though she was unused to being around what she called a “group of intellectuals and intelligentsia” she soon felt that she belonged. They went to museums and galleries together and talked of their shared belief that painting was a mystical experience. They felt a similar connection to the spiritual and the poetic, and as artists they sought to direct this energy—this “scared feeling for life”—into their work. They saw the canvas as a battleground on which they were to “fight out their lives.”
“I think our excitement about art was rather unnatural. This tremendous love of art was where our identities collided,” West later recalled. Gorky thought he’d found the perfect mate and asked her to marry him. But despite their shared passions and philosophies, she felt as if Gorky understood her very little, and she declined. He asked her several more times, and she refused, confessing that her work would always come first. He promised that would not change, but his needs were already more than she could handle. Though she agonized over breaking up with him, she felt that he “needed a rich sophisticated person who would give him 2 children and help manage his career.”
The New York art world of the ’30s and early ’40s was fueled by a search for what still needed to be done in painting—what the European modern masters hadn’t done already—and the city was becoming the center of that exploration. Abstract Expressionism, which was developing along with the city’s explosive spirit, was less cerebral and inspired less by outside influences than by an inner compulsion. Painting became more an expression of what inhabited the jungle of the artist’s mind than an art based on objective standards.
What was eventually called the New York School was decidedly male dominated, with its leaders Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky. West was one of the few females artists, along with Lenore (Lee) Krasner and Grace (George) Hartigan who were active in the movement. They believed that style dominated subject matter; in fact, style was the subject matter. An artist was to strive to think and feel what the painting iswas not what it showed. Spontaneous gesture should evoke a very immediate response, and the use of color should spark the imagination.
West didn’t appreciate being in the shadow of men, even if she admired them greatly. She was fiercely independent and eager for recognition as a professional artist. In the ’40s, her unique style of Abstract Expressionism began to find an audience intrigued by its wild, stark, brutal quality and its unruly tussle of color and line. Inspired by French philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of living energy, or creative impulse, she took a passionate, instinctive approach to painting, filling her canvases with vibrancy and raw force. She adopted Bergson’s idea that a new world is waiting to be discovered by trusting in the creativity of instinct. Intuition, not analysis, reveals the world to artists.
In 1948 Michael married Francis Lee, an experimental filmmaker who during World War II had joined the infantry and was assigned as a combat cameraman. He shot some 500,000 feet of film that thirty years later was fashioned into a 20-minute documentary. The couple worked diligently by day in their artistic media and in the evening frequented the Cedar Tavern, a bar on 24 University Place where Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists hung out for the cheap liquor and protection from tourists and middle-class squares.
While Abstract Expressionism took off and for decades was the “house style,” its popularity didn’t do enough to boost West’s career. She received less press and fewer exhibitions than her male peers, though she eventually showed her work in Manhattan’s prestigious Stable Gallery in 1953 alongside de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston. In 1957 she had a solo show at the Uptown Gallery in New York City, and another in 1958 at the Domino Gallery in Georgetown, Washington, DC.
Though a jilted lover, Gorky remained a fan of West’s work, saying that “it is like no other American painter.” His support always meant a great deal to her and perhaps encouraged her to continue producing several hundred canvases long after he died in 1948. She loved the process that she characterized as working in the dark and feeling her way forward. Each line or color, added and then subtracted, was an ongoing experiment in her quest to tap into the uncontrollable forces of motion around her. At the end of her career, she hoped that her art communicated to the viewer a vision of life’s wonders and mysteries.
Thank to Miriam L. Smith of Art Resource Group and Michael West’s executor, Stuart Friedman, for their support and assistance.
Flowers and Thugs: the Slum Photos of Jacob Riis
During the winter of 1888, New York police reporter Jacob Riis’s children had scarlet fever, and from Christmas until Easter they seemed to waste away in their sick beds. On an early spring day, Riis saw a small green shoot pushing through the snow in his yard. He replanted it in a flower pot, placed it on the window sill of the children’s room, and weeks later it bloomed into a bright yellow dandelion. Delighted, they roused from their torpor and tended the weed. “It beat all the doctor’s medicine,” Riis recalled. His children thought that the slum kids he often talked of needed flowers too. The Riis family gathered blooms from the meadow near their house in genteel Richmond Hill, and he brought the bouquets to his Mullberry Street office on Newspaper Row amid New York City’s rickety frame tenements.
Children, barefoot and dirt-covered, more used to “dodging a helpful hand thinking that it was a blow,” approached Riis suspiciously, but when they saw that he meant well, “they went wild over the posies,” grabbing them from his arms. Most had never seen daisies and buttercups and violets before. Overwhelmed, Riis sat in the gutter and wept. The next day he wrote a letter to the editor of the Tribune, recounting the experience. He asked, “If we cannot give them fields, why not flowers?” He was certain that an armful of daisies would keep the peace better than a policeman’s club. People responded to his letter by bringing him bags, barrels and boxes of flowers to distribute.
Though he knew his story had the sentimental quality of something by Charles Dickens, Riis liked to recount his “flower project” because it embodied many of his core beliefs: small efforts can put a human face on poverty; and loving thy neighbor is worthless if not translated into action.
His flower campaign was not new—the Children’s Aid Society had built greenhouses around the city to connect urban children with nature—yet his views on welfare reform were. Newspaper “slumming stories,” as they were called, depicted poverty as shameful and a sign of laziness, using words such as “sinful,” “degenerate,” “wicked” and “dangerous” to characterize the poor. Riis did not believe that the slum dwellers were a breed apart or that poverty was their fault. They were a product of their circumstances. If children of the poor were raised in a healthy environment, they would thrive. He asked, “You do not expect a rose to grow out of a swamp?”
Owing to high levels of immigration and an overcrowded environment, Manhattan was particularly cruel to its young. With no welfare structure or safety net, children were routinely abandoned on the streets. Some formed small gangs that engaged in petty crimes, playing among the opium dens, bars, lodging houses and slaughterhouses. The luckier ones found periodic employment as newspaper boys, flower sellers, porters, domestic servants and errand boys or worked in factories or sweatshops. According to the 1880 Education Act, they were required to attend school until the age of eleven, but family survival came before education, and truancy was common.
Being a newspaper man, Riis understood the value of the press as a weapon against poverty, and he set out to help wealthy and middle-class New Yorkers visualize their lives. He put the tenement district at the center of his reporting but grew frustrated with the failure of his stories to effect change. “I wrote about it, but it seemed to make no impression.”
Riis discovered a revolutionary weapon—photography. The recent invention of flash powder used to create artificial light made it possible to take pictures at night or indoors. With it he could illuminate the dark alleys and poorly lit garrets, bringing to light places that many could not imagine.
He interviewed and photographed these “little toilers” who posed naturally for him, though some of the older “rascals” struck their tough guy poses. The adults were understandably less cooperative. To get interior tenement scenes, Riis, two photographers and a policeman would burst into the rooms unannounced. The light from the flash powder was temporarily blinding and filled the already stifling, squalid rooms with smoke.
Riis wanted to gather hundreds of photos, but the work was exhausting, and his photographers soon tired of the night forays. Out of necessity, he bought himself a camera and learned how to take pictures. Though he was uninterested in technique and impatient with details, he mastered the medium enough to create serviceable images. More importantly, he had a natural eye for composition and for scenes that told a meaningful story.
Improved lantern slide technology allowed Riis to project his images on a large screen, and he began traveling around, giving a lecture entitled “The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York.” The title wasn’t exactly accurate. By 1890, “the other half” was two-thirds of the city’s population, with 1.2 million of New York’s 1.6 million crowded into tenements.
Riis delivered his lectures at churches, YMCAs, and to reform and religious groups. Avoiding a moralistic tone, he spoke without notes, telling stories of the inhabitants of Bandit’s Roost, Corlears Hook, Hell’s Kitchen, Gotham Court, Mott Street, Chatham Square and Chinese opium dens and seven-cent lodging houses. Ten years of experience as a police reporter helped him synthesize visual images, statistics, jokes, songs, history and vignettes. His audiences were spellbound by the photographs and his depiction of the tenement dwellers. He had become the first photographer to take pictures of the poor with the aim of jolting people into action.
A critic for the New York Tribune wrote that Riis was “so ingenious in describing scenes and brought to his task such a vein of humor that after two hours every one wished that there was more of the exhibition, sad as much of it was.” Riis became a widely sought-after lecturer.
Much of his lecture was reprinted in Scribner’s Magazine, a monthly aimed at upper-middle-class readers, the people Riis was trying to reach, and later by Charles Scribner’s Sons as a 300-page book. The technique for reprinting photographs was still primitive; half of the forty-four illustrations were reproduced as engravings. How the Other Half Lives became a best seller, receiving largely favorable reviews, and made Riis financially comfortable. The book also established him as one of the nineteenth century’s most important leaders of social reform. In his work Americans finally saw documentary evidence of the urban poor and their degraded conditions.
In 1901 Riis published his autobiography, The Making of an American, which chronicled his rise from penniless immigrant to literary celebrity. It extended his key themes—urban poverty and the Americanization of a hardscrabble immigrant. Riis was born in 1849 in Ribe, a tiny town in the southwest corner of Denmark. He recalled in his memoir that he was a forthright and confident child who at an early age was concerned with the welfare of others. Because of the deaths from illness of ten of his siblings, he was well aware of the fragility of life.
His father was a teacher, but though Riis was intelligent and bookish, he was a poor student, preferring to read James Fenimore Cooper, Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Dickens than attend to his studies. At fifteen he dropped out of school, moved to Copenhagen and apprenticed himself to a carpenter. Copenhagen, the most densely populated city in Scandinavia with 170,000 inhabitants, prepared him for life in New York City. The poorest residents were squeezed into tiny apartments, making for slum-like conditions.
When he returned home at nineteen, he found little work in the depressed rural district of Denmark. In 1870 at the age of twenty-one, with forty dollars and a few items of clothing, Riis set sail for the United States. He had recently proposed to a beauty named Elizabeth, daughter of the wealthiest family in Ribe, and she had rejected him. He wanted to put some distance between them, but he also had a sense of restlessness and spirit of adventure.
Riis spoke English, had a skilled trade as a carpenter and a burning ambition to succeed, though he wasn’t sure at what. Two days after his arrival, he was on a train to Pittsburgh to build cabins for miners. From there he moved on, drifting around mostly upstate New York doing odd jobs—cucumber picker, brickyard worker, cradle maker, steamship repairman, ice harvester, lumberjack and hunter and trapper.
By 1870, he found himself back in New York City in the city’s worst slum, Five Points. He was finding it hard to succeed; he had no money or food, took handouts from the backdoors of restaurants, and fought with other tramps for a spot to sleep in doorways. For a time he aspired to be a telegraph operator for Western Union, a well-paid, solidly middle-class position, and sold iron for Mann & Wilson during the day so he could attend operator training classes at a business school at night.
He showed some interest in journalism and in 1873 was hired by the New York News Association for $10 a week to cover general news in Manhattan, Harlem and the Bowery. He dug up sensational stories involving New York street life—robberies, brawls, murders—and quickly showed a flair for reporting. “I really think that journalism comes easily to me.”
“The Dutchman” as he was called by his fellow reporters moved on to the South Brooklyn News. It was a smaller operation, but he was hired to run the entire operation—report, write, edit. He increased the paper’s circulation and profits by adding editorials and gossip columns. He had made enough to buy the paper and then sell it at a $3,000 profit, which allowed him to return to Denmark a success and convince Elizabeth to marry him.
Returning to work as a reporter in 1876, this time for the New-York Daily Tribune, he was assigned the police beat, which meant that he followed the “bluecoats” who were the most public symbol of authority. Riis trailed them all over the city as they dealt with murders, suicides, fires and robberies, rescued children, pulled bodies from the river, and dealt with tenements and health issues. Riis saw human pain and suffering on a daily basis, but he also gained a comprehensive knowledge of the city, learning the intimate details of its underbelly.
He observed firsthand the damaging impact of the explosion of growth in tenement housing. In 1880 there were an estimated 600,000 New Yorkers in 24,000 tenements that had no water above the first floor, terrible ventilation, unsanitary conditions, and poor sewer connections. This resulted in a death rate far higher than in Philadelphia or Boston or in English or French cities. Riis believed that there was a clear connection between miserable housing conditions and the city’s high rates of mortality and premature death.
Between 1880 and 1910 the urban population in the United States tripled. Thousands of immigrants took up residency in New York each month, adding to the already high population density. Certain areas of New York City were the most densely populated in the world. Cutthroat competition for housing encouraged neglect and overcrowding, forcing people to live what Riis called “the barrack life.” He blamed “cockroach capitalism” and argued that society must protect itself by imposing checks on the greed of unscrupulous men who prey on the weak and ignorant.
How the Other Half Lives was a groundbreaking book that vividly conveyed the deplorable, squalid living conditions in New York City. Tenements were “the Frankenstein of our city,” destroyers of individuality and character.
Thirty-five years after his death from a heart attack in 1914 at the age of sixty-five, a steamer trunk was discovered in the attic of his farm house by the family who had bought it; the trunk contained 412 glass plates, 161 slides, and 193 paper photos. In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibit of fifty of his prints, which launched a rediscovery of his work.
Today Riis is considered an independent social critic and is credited with the beginning of what we call documentary photography. He inspired reformers of all kinds to use photography to promote their causes. Despite his revolutionary foray into this medium, he had very little sense of his contribution. He called himself simply, “A photographer after a fashion.” His aim was to show the darkest corners of slum life to the public and to jolt them from their complacency.
Riis summarized his life and work when he said that he was a man who had no specific genius, no specific talent; he just possessed endurance and a desire to show how things really are rather than simply theorizing about them. “Deed not creed” was the motto that defined his life, and his surviving deed was to leave a powerful record of the living conditions of the urban poor in turn-of-the century New York.
The Desert Island Novel: A Small Place for Big Characters
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Signet Classic, 2008, 322 pp., $5.95 (paper).
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Modern Library Classics, 2001, 240 pp., $11.99.
Robinson by Muriel Spark. New Directions, 2003, 176 pp., $15.95.
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. Europa Editions, 172 pp., $15 (paper).
The novel lends itself especially well to extremes of scope. On one hand, it is expansive, allowing for an exploration of a whole society—scores of characters with complicated relationships, shifting currents of power, political maneuverings and class dynamics. It might span decades and continents. It might come complete with family-tree diagrams in the first few pages, lest readers forget who is pretending to be whose second cousin, once removed. The Victorians (Dickens, Collins, Thackeray, Eliot) were especially adept at the creation of big novels, but today, too, the expansive novel is enjoying a moment. We can see the Victorians’ influence in Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning doorstop The Luminaries, which traces twelve main characters’ involvement in a complicated crime in a mining town in nineteenth-century New Zealand, or in Jeff VanderMeer’s chronicle of a blighted and strange region in Florida in the Southern Reach trilogy, or even, perhaps, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s confoundingly compelling seven-volume fictional autobiography My Struggle, expansive in its page count but narrow in its subject matter: the life of one man, rendered in exhaustive detail.
Somehow, a big novel’s length aids what Coleridge calls readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief,” the surrender to the world of a text, no matter the improbabilities. I spend so long with a big book, I no longer remember that I’m reading. The physicality of the page dissolves, and I forget about my self, too. It’s the closest I come to an out-of-body experience. When I finish reading a big novel, I’m left bereft, as if I have lost something dear. And I have: the world of the novel is so much more compelling, and maybe even much more knowable, than the real world.
Some writers have argued that readers should not be expected to devote such time to a big novel because big novels are about the wrong things. Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” rails against Arnold Bennett’s assertion that there were no great Georgian novelists “because they cannot create characters who are real, true, and convincing.” Woolf, herself a Georgian writer, understandably takes umbrage. She asserts that Edwardians like Bennett are unable to penetrate the souls of their characters; what they settle for instead is a cataloguing of the material stuff that surrounds the character, in the vague hope that if the author is thorough enough, the character’s interiority will emerge. Woolf writes, “[Edwardian writers] have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at [a character], never at life, never at human nature.” For Woolf, exhaustiveness in describing concrete stuff in a novel is not as essential as revelation about human behavior garnered through close examination of characters’ interiority.
This discussion of the right and true presentation of character is not confined to the hinge of Victorian literature and modernism. Michael Chabon in his novel Wonder Boys presents a writer who is eaten up with the importance of novel creation. His student, who has bravely read a considerable portion of his 2,611-page draft, suggests that the problem with the novel (for any novel of such a length must have a problem) is that the characters themselves take a back seat to background information, such as genealogies of characters’ horses. This sounds like Woolf’s objection to Edwardian writers. Chabon’s writer disagrees:
The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses.
I am struck by the impossibility of the task Chabon’s writer has given himself, and it is, to be sure, a problem of scope. Reading these lines makes one yearn for a way to strip away the weight of the author’s responsibility, to suggest that a single novel does not need to capture so much of the world.
These problems of weight and of weightiness do not plague the short novel, which at about two hundred pages can be read in a long afternoon or a couple of evenings. When you finish a short novel, you part as friends, rather than as estranged acquaintances (in the case of an unsatisfying read) or cruelly separated lovers (in the case of an engrossing one). The short novel offers a narrative of a more compressed scope in order to allow for more pointed examinations of certain elements. If big novels allow for exploration of whole societies, small novels are especially adept at capturing an individual consciousness or the dynamics of a small group.
One way to limit a novel’s scope is to narrow the setting. Three of the short novels under consideration here—Robinson Crusoe, Robinson and Treasure Island — are united by their setting on uninhabited islands with scant square mileage. The fourth, Treasure Island!!! boasts a protagonist so solipsistic that she undoes Donne’s assertion that no man is an island. Treasure Island!!! and Robinson offer intriguing reimaginings of the canonical texts.
The desert island as a setting debuted with the birth of the novel, in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). What makes the desert island such a great setting, one that endures? There is the physical difficulty. Immediately upon being cast away on an island, the protagonist must confront the problem of keeping soul and body together (no getting lost in big thick novels for him). He needs food, he needs water, he needs shelter. This provides immediate narrative movement. And, of course, there is the psychological difficulty. Frequently the path that leads a character to the island is traumatic, so that if he does not arrive onshore with physical wounds, psychic ones might dog him. Even if the character reaches the island unscathed, he must then confront the rigors of isolation. This can become a narrative problem, too, for how do you create narrative tension or movement when your scope is so small that there is only one character? If the author has given the main character companions in his sojourn, there is the interpersonal difficulty that comes from strong personalities that don’t have enough room to spread out. Characters who don’t get along, who in the normal course of events might simply avoid each other, are forced to engage on an island.
Robinson Crusoe (1719) is mostly concerned with the first of these difficulties. Crusoe has an adventuresome spirit and, despite his father’s warnings, goes to sea to pursue his fortune. He comes to all manner of grief there, from seasickness to enslavement. He enjoys a short term of prosperity in South America but then volunteers to voyage to Africa to bring back slaves for his plantation and those of his friends. The ship is lost in a storm, and Crusoe is the only survivor. He awakens upon an island, and his early days are spent performing tasks of basic survival and in fear of attack by wild animals. With the help of supplies from the ship, which has conveniently (improbably?) fetched up on a shoal close to the beach, he fashions a shelter and incrementally improves his situation through farming, animal husbandry and hunting. Set against these concerns for physical survival is his newfound religious faith, which allows him to come to terms with his bad luck and even to appreciate the blessing of his survival.
Crusoe keeps a journal, which reveals much about his character. While the journal does trace his spiritual awakening, much more space on the page is given over to small gains in his living conditions. There is a particularly rhapsodic section in which he figures out how to make “Earthen Vessels” for storing and cooking his food. Crusoe’s focus on external circumstances might be reminiscent of Bennett’s work as critiqued by Woolf, but the important distinction is that rather than an omniscient narrator detailing these circumstances for readers, here the protagonist narrates. Crusoe’s gaze tells us about his psychology. He is methodical, exacting and rather unemotional. The discussion of concrete circumstances dominates the text because it dominates his thoughts. At the beginning of the novel, just after he is marooned, such exacting attention to details of survival would be expected for any character. For Crusoe, though, this focus remains long after he has established adequate shelter and supplies of food and water. The conflict of human versus nature has been resolved, with the human triumphing, but still Crusoe recounts his farming strategies, his larder’s contents, his baking techniques.
There is a fascinating moment halfway through the novel, just as Crusoe is resigning himself to his lonely fate. He has badly missed companionship, so much so that the parrot he tamed has learned this refrain: “Poor Robin Crusoe, Where are you? Where have you been?” But then Crusoe finds a footprint on the beach. One might expect him to feel relief or hope, but instead, he’s “terrify’d to the last Degree.” At some point in his time on the island, certain loneliness has become preferable to unknown companionship. True, the footprint does turn out to belong to a cannibal, but there’s an even more curious scene later. An English ship sails to the island, and Crusoe narrates:
I cannot express the Confusion I was in, tho’ the Joy of seeing a Ship and one who I had Reason to believe was Mann’d by my own Countrymen, and consequently Friends, was such as I cannot describe; but yet I had some secret Doubts hung about me, I cannot tell from whence they came, bidding me keep upon my Guard.
What can explain this hesitation in Crusoe, this seeming reluctance for deliverance? Perhaps it has to do with the notion he’s developed that it is the “general Plague of Mankind” not to be satisfied with your place in the world. But perhaps, too, Crusoe has enjoyed the control he has exercised over the island and his own personal liberty in his isolation, and he is loath to give it up. Early in the novel, he describes himself as king of the island, pointing out how he has “the Lives of all my Subjects at my absolute Command. I could hang, draw, give Liberty, and take it away, and no Rebels among all my Subjects.” The “Subjects” in this moment, are a dog, some cats and a parrot. Later he rescues a companion, Friday, from a tribe of cannibals, and the first English word Crusoe teaches him is “master,” referring, of course, to himself. Crusoe finds privation and struggle on the island, but he also learns to enjoy power and total liberty, which he finds difficult to relinquish, even if his only interlocutors are winged or four-legged.
The title of Muriel Spark’s Robinson (1958) announces that it is in conversation with Robinson Crusoe, and there are a number of surface similarities: both novels are about people who become marooned, both take place mostly on an island small enough to circumnavigate on foot and both have protagonists who are exploring religious faith. The protagonist in Robinson, January Marlow, who tells her story in the first person retrospectively, meets the titular character after a plane crash which has killed nearly thirty people and left only three survivors: January herself, Tom Wells, a purveyor of lucky charms and an accomplished blackmailer, and Jimmie Waterford, a Dutchman who stands to inherit Robinson’s fortune. The plane lands, handily, on Robinson’s island, which has a population of two for the majority of the year: Robinson, a mysterious, rich hermit in his early fifties—who has an appetite for control as strong as Crusoe’s—and Miguel, a nine-year-old Portuguese boy he adopted. Once a year, the pomegranate boats bring men to the island who stay for a few weeks harvesting the pomegranates. Miguel’s father, before he died, was one of these men. Unlike in Robinson Crusoe, after the initial terror of the wreck, which January cannot even remember, there is never any danger of death from accident or privation. Instead, the tension comes from the grating of strong personalities.
Robinson starts as a novel about people forced to make do in straitened circumstances, in a group they would not have selected themselves, but then, about halfway through, Robinson disappears, leaving behind only bloody garments. The novel turns much darker. It seems sure that one of the remaining islanders murdered Robinson and dropped his body in a volcano vent called the Furnace. January, Tom and Jimmie go from competing for Miguel’s attention (January teaches a cat to play ping-pong, Tom gives Miguel lucky trinkets) to wondering who among them might be a murderer. No one trusts anyone, and January’s suspicions vacillate from Tom, whom she intensely dislikes but who seems to have no motive, and Jimmie, whom she likes very much but who is Robinson’s heir. These moments call to mind the claustrophobia of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, another island novel, in which ten characters are killed one by one by a mysterious murderer.
Near the end, Robinson steers away from its flirtation with the mystery genre. Robinson reappears, having faked his own death seemingly because he couldn’t stand the sudden influx of people and because he could not force them to hew to his plans. At first this ending seems maddening. Rules for the murder mystery have been established, but they are summarily violated when it is revealed that there has been no murder at all. The hand of God has come down and swept away the mystery. But Robinson is a novel about character, and about ways in which characters attempt to bend other characters to their will, using the scant tools the island provides. In this way, the ending is just right: it’s a deus ex machina fashioned by someone (echoes of Robinson Crusoe here) who fancies himself Deus.
The island’s shape helps to create this sense that Robinson dominates the story. A map in the front of the book shows that Robinson Island (for Robinson has named the island after himself) forms an outline of a man lying prone. Areas of the island are referred to by their relationship to this anatomy: the North Arm, the West Leg, the Headlands. There is something uncanny about the survivors of the crash scrabbling over these various body parts, and things get even more intimate when a series of underground tunnels is revealed, so that January and the other characters walk not only all over Robinson but through him as well. This metaphor speaks, too, to how he feels about the marooned survivors destroy his privacy.
Robinson’s disappearance happens just as he steals January’s rosary for the second time (the first was when she was unconscious after the plane crash). She has been threatening to teach Miguel about it, which throws Robinson into a panic that seems out of proportion. Both Robinson and January are Catholics, and Robinson objects to what he calls in a pamphlet he wrote “The Dangers of Marian Doctrine.” In this way he resembles January’s brother-in-law, Ian, who carps about “Marian excesses,” saying, “All this Mariolatry is eating the Christian heart out of the Catholic faith. . . . It is a materialistic heresy.” Both characters have a problem with idolatry, yes, but it is a problem that is also closely tied to gender. Mary makes them uncomfortable, but so, too, does the possibility that January, a widow, might undertake a romantic relationship. Robinson does what he can to foil her closeness with Jimmie, and, before she reaches the island, Ian travels across several countries to spy on her because he believes she is having a love affair. The men on the island, and in her life in general, view her as a repository for their hangups about sex. January, for her part, wants none of either and views men as a frustration to be avoided by deploying a decoy: “I find that, when travelling abroad alone, it is wise and actually discreet to take up with one well-chosen man on the journey. Otherwise, one is likely to be approached by numerous chance pesterers alone the line.”
At the end of the novel, January walks alone in London, enjoying an espresso, and the reader feels pleased that she is able to disentangle herself from the traumatic experience of the crash and from the other gender’s desires for her with few ill effects.
Treasure Island, upon its publication in 1883, garnered an enthusiastic readership of both children and adults. Even Henry James was a fan, calling it, in “The Art of Fiction,” a “delightful story” full of “murders, mysteries, islands of dreadful renown, hairbreadth escapes, miraculous coincidences and buried doubloons.” I can only echo James’s excitement. Treasure Island is packed with action that flies at a brisk clip, and there are many moments in which readers wonder how the protagonist, the child Jim Hawkins, can escape from the bind he’s gotten into.
The story of Treasure Island goes like this: Jim is the son of the proprietors of an out-of-the-way seaside inn with a notable guest: a dirty, foul-tempered old sailor who seems to be hiding from something. The “something” arrives in the form of his old pirate friends, who want to get their hands on his treasure map. Jim’s father has just died, and Jim and his mother must take what they are owed from the old sailor, who has dropped dead of a stroke, before the pirates return. They do so just in time, and Jim also seizes a bound packet of papers to “square the count” and settle the sailor’s debt. The pirates descend on the inn and find the papers gone. Jim and two guardians, the squire and the doctor, discover that the papers include the pirate treasure map and outfit a ship, the Hispaniola, to retrieve the treasure. The squire, who picks the sailors, does a poor job: over half the crew members are pirates, including the one-legged cook, Long John Silver, and Silver’s constant companion, the parrot Captain Flint, named for the captain of the pirate ship that amassed the buried treasure. Jim overhears the pirates plotting mutiny on the ship, and there is a standoff both on the ship and on the island. The good guys successfully fight the pirates with the help of Ben Gunn, a pirate who was cruelly marooned on the island several years before. Hawkins does many brave things and many foolhardy things, and many brave and foolhardy things, such as single-handedly, in a coracle, reclaiming the Hispaniola, which had been taken by the pirates. The novel ends with Hawkins shuddering at the memory of Silver’s parrot’s refrain, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”
James’s list of the things he likes about Treasure Island focuses on plot and setting, but what I find truly remarkable about this short novel is its characterization, particularly of the antagonist Long John Silver, the ringleader of the pirates who try to reclaim their treasure. Jim first meets Silver at Silver’s tavern and describes him as follows:
His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham—plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling. Indeed, he seemed in the most cheerful spirits, whistling as he moved about among the tables, with a merry word or a slap on the shoulder for the more favoured of his guests.
Already the paradoxes in Silver become apparent. He is hobbled by a missing leg but is still big, powerful and fast. His face speaks of illness, but his manner is all hale and hearty. Later, Silver will break a man’s back with that crutch, but for the time being he impresses Jim favorably, treating him not as a child but as an equal. Even the doctor, the wisest man in the novel, is fooled, telling the squire “John Silver suits me.” When Jim overhears Silver talking mutinously, he’s especially hurt that Silver uses the same complimentary language with the sailor he’s trying to win over to his side as he used with Jim, “smart as paint.” Though Silver leads the mutineers, he’s also adept at determining where his best chances lie. He presses the advantage when he has it, but upon losing it he is quick to do an about-face if a better outcome beckons. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill Jim, until he learns that the mutiny is going poorly, and then he sells out his friends, telling Jim, “As for that lot and their council, mark me, they’re outright fools and cowards. I’ll save your life—if so be as I can—from them. But, see here, Jim—tit for tat—you save Long John from swinging.” He is terrifying because he is so convincing in each of his guises, and he’s absolutely unburdened by morality or loyalty. Silver’s machinations work, and, unlike his confederates, who are all killed or marooned, he receives a ride back to the mainland. He escapes the ship before he can be brought to trial, swimming ably despite his game leg, Captain Flint no doubt still perched on his shoulder.
For all the swashbuckling adventure, Treasure Island is ultimately a conservative book. No class structures are upset. The good guys emerge from their adventure alive, with the loot. The mutineers all suffer, to various degrees. Only one blackguard, the irrepressible Silver, goes unpunished. He’s the most thrilling thing about the book, the one bit that seems to knock the story out of its moral orbit.
In Treasure Island!!! (2012) by Sara Levine, the unnamed protagonist comes into conflict with her personal healer, Beverly Flowers, when Beverly offers a reading of Treasure Island that differs from the protagonist’s. The protagonist, a woman in her midtwenties who does not have a strong life plan, becomes obsessed with Treasure Island and the character of Jim Hawkins in particular. Bev, on the other hand, is a Silver partisan:
‘Now there’s the center of your novel. Charismatic personality, repellent morally speaking, and it’s amazing how he gets around on that one leg. Remember? Jim knows he should be wary of Silver, but he’s drawn to him for good reasons.’
The protagonist, on the other hand, views Jim Hawkins as a role model. Jim, for her, embodies four “Core Values”: “BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE and HORN-BLOWING.” The first three are self-explanatory, but we never quite learn what horn-blowing means. Is the horn literal or not? It’s a mystery, and horns do not play a significant part in Treasure Island, suggesting that the protagonist of Treasure Island!!! is doing some idiosyncratic close reading.
The protagonist’s life is not going well at the beginning of the novel, which is told in very short chapters that mirror her attention span. She works as a clerk at a “pet library,” a small business that allows patrons to check out dogs, cats, and hamsters. She has a boyfriend she’s indifferent about who works in tech support. She has one friend, who is a pet sitter. They all have college degrees, and their shared underemployment suggests that the protagonist’s lack of success professionally is not a personal problem but a societal one. The recent economic collapse has shut off a whole generation from lucrative, engaging employment.
Over the course of the novel, the protagonist makes a series of rash and harmful decisions under the guise of acting boldly and independently, as she believes Hawkins would. She steals money at work in order to buy a parrot named Little Richard. She is fired from her job and refuses to find a new one. She sponges off her boyfriend until he kicks her out; then she refuses to leave, claiming that she’s laying siege to the apartment, as a pirate might. She lands at her parents’ house, where she shares a bedroom with her parrot, who has a fondness for advertising slogans. “It’s big, it’s hot, it’s back,” he screeches, rather than “Steer the boat, girlfriend,” as she’d prefer. She reveals her sister’s affair with a coworker of their father’s, which causes a terrible breach in the family. She gets fed up with the parrot’s talking and poisons him using Xanax-laced mac and cheese, and when that proves too slow, suffocates him with a T.J. Maxx bag. Yes, really. Afterward she doesn’t feel bad exactly (she never feels bad), but there is a hesitation. She describes the sensation as “sweet grief” and reflects that she “was surprised at how complicated it feels to lose somebody.” She neglects to remind herself that she is the instrument of the loss. Her family discovers that she killed the parrot and stages an intervention, demonstrating just how much her family and ex-boyfriend are paragons of kindness and love. The scope in Treasure Island!!! is narrowed by the protagonist’s difficulty as a character. Only a few mellow souls have the patience to stick with her.
The protagonist is that rare breed of character, a female antihero. Male antiheroes are a dime a dozen—Humbert Humbert, Macbeth, Satan. If a male antihero offers the pleasure of watching someone violate rules and mores to allow for the indulgence of their worst impulses, a female antihero offers a double pleasure, for the limits of acceptable behavior for women remain so circumscribed. Women are supposed to be sensitive to the needs of others. They are supposed to nurture. Get a load of the protagonist, reflecting on her ex-boyfriend: “I suspected he had a work ethic I wasn’t interested in exploring,” and on the calfskin handbag he bought her: “‘Don’t think he chose it, Rena. He was going to get flowers. I redirected him,” and on mental health: “It is possible to think of my life, up to the age of twenty-five, as a series of therapists I successfully dodged,” and on receiving bad news from her one friend: “I put down my sandwich and laughed. ‘I thought you were going to tell me something horrible! I mean, for me,’” and on a doctor who refused to give her Xanax: “she had repulsed me like she would have any other patient. It was enough to make a person feel . . . generic.”
The protagonist’s affinity for Jim speaks to her longing for her childhood. She’s dissatisfied with her life, and when she reminisces fondly, it’s about grade school, when she could do fun things like try on her friend’s beautiful jewelry or fill notebooks with observations about the other little girls’ looks. Jim is able to venture boldly and never suffers for it. Levine’s protagonist is scared, even, to drive a car. She longs for a consequence-free series of adventures that might allow her to skim across the surface of her life, but by the novel’s end she has learned that as one ages one also must sink into whatever lies below.
The protagonist dismisses Long John Silver when her healer Beverly itemizes his attractions, but what readers come to realize is that Beverly is inadvertently describing the protagonist herself. She’s the one with the parrot (until his untimely demise). She’s the villain in the lives of the characters around her. She’s the one who has a “charismatic personality” but is “repellent morally speaking.” Just as Jim Hawkins is with Silver, we readers are “drawn to [her] for good reason.” Her lack of moral compass, her cruel sense of humor, and her confusion about how to live in the world make her a singularity in the small circle of characters who can stand to be around her.
I grew up in a small town and have gone on to live in big cities, and I’ve always suspected that small towns breed a particular kind of unselfconscious eccentricity (Sherwood Anderson’s “grotesques,” for example), which is able to blossom because there aren’t enough people around for everyone to get a sense of how most folks act. The sample set is just too small. In a big city, eccentricity tends to be cultivated, a desire to set oneself apart from the crush of people who all behave in the same sorts of ways. The small town eccentric doesn’t know he’s eccentric, and that is what makes him so compelling—a character. The desert island, then, seems to erase this obligation to social conventions even more thoroughly, leaving each person free to act just as he or she likes, making it an ideal stage for big, beautiful, weird characters.
Poetry Feature: Miriam Bird Greenberg
Featuring the poems:
- Would You Believe
- A Thousand Wires Humming
Poetry Feature: Jennifer Barber
Featuring the poems:
- Motion Harmony #1
- Motion Harmony #2
- Motion Harmony #4
- Inscription in the Book, Invisible Ink
Once while visiting a park on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, I observed what appeared to be anarchic behavior among a group of squirrel monkeys. More than twenty of them were clustered together on a limb, fussing, fighting, biting, examining each other’s genitals, having sex and pushing each other to different limbs. They seemed to be engaged in endless conflict. I later learned that what looked like chaos was in fact the maintenance of a certain order, albeit at a speedy metabolic and behavioral rate. Squirrel monkeys live in large mixed-sex gatherings of females from the same natal group, with immigrant males among them that are typically kept on the periphery despite their frequent, often frustrated attempts to take different positions in the community. Males that grasp and examine females are apparently seeking olfactory cues to the female’s reproductive state; much of the fussing, biting and pushing I observed are efforts to defy and test social and sexual order, blended with actions maintaining that order in the quest for strong sexual mates.
Their crazy but oddly logical monkeying around was almost like a cartoon of evolutionary genetics reflected in behavior. Conflict, failure and the occasional moments of harmony are at the heart of evolution. A similar kind of change happens over time in human culture, including the arts and literature.
The best new voices often defy the accepted in the quest for new themes, subjects and possibilities of form. Beethoven composed music so complex it almost threatened to become disorder, with density and stylistic variety and a mingling of the inordinately sophisticated with the childishly simple. In art, Picasso disassembled “realistic” imagery—which he was quite adept at imitating—in his quest to see and embody the abstract elements of form, color and movement.
Artists who defy the accepted, either in form or in subject, may not be fully appreciated until they are either dead or near the end of their lives. Jane Austen is now so widely admired that her work is thought of as a standard model of the novel. However, during her lifetime, because she was an innovator who challenged both novelistic themes and the accepted roles of women, she was largely unknown outside a small realm of family, friends and opinion makers. The novel was not yet widely considered to be an art form. It was questionable for women even to be writing novels, especially when they so vividly portrayed the shaky position of their gender in a world where security was contingent on a “good marriage.”
In subjects and themes, this issue is replete with testing and defiance. Robin Romm’s story “What to Expect” depicts a thirty-nine-year-old film editor who has decided to have a child by artificial insemination. She is now pregnant but feeling unsure about how she will manage single motherhood. She impulsively makes friends with a couple who are also seeking a child by the same means and despite her pregnancy begins an affair with the man, who is a filmmaker. The story is an interesting look at the scariness and uncertainty of deliberate single motherhood and the challenge of cultural norms.
“July Sun” by Aamina Ahmad is a story about how vicious some societies can be toward those who defy convention. A young Pakistani man, newly and happily married, sees his wife’s unmarried best friend engaged in a tryst. He is shocked by the impropriety and soon learns that the young woman and her lover have eloped. The tragedies that ensue include the murder of the young woman and the wreckage of the couple’s own marital happiness. Ahmad’s story highlights the destructiveness of intransigent cultural norms, where breaking certain rules is met with simple extermination and a shared poison lingering among survivors.
“The Prodigal Daughter” is the second story we have published about M. G. Stephens’s Irish protagonist, Eileen, a recovered drug addict and former wife of a Cuban jazz musician. Eileen has returned to Ireland to see her mother, who is dying. Eileen has a tense interaction with her sisters, who have lived “better” lives than she—no drugs or wandering or dissipation. The mother announces that she is proud of them all. But what she finally tells the sisters shocks them all, including Eileen, with what it reveals of her feelings about convention and safety versus adventure, about making mistakes and taking chances.
Mitch Wieland’s story “Snow Angels” concerns a teenaged son whose mother has committed suicide and whose father moves them to Japan, where the mother was born. The boy, still lonely and grieving, makes friends with an eccentric Japanese girl whose father is dead and whose whole family was displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The girl is a brave and compelling nonconformist who flouts the ruthlessly cliquish expectations of her classmates, especially a group of girls who single her out for harassment. They go on a quirky adventure that breaks several rules, including venturing into the Fukushima exclusion zone to scatter the mother’s ashes in a graveyard. The zone is now both a ghostly and strangely auspicious place—at least in the lives of these defiant young survivors.
Jeff Wasserboehr’s essay “Possess Stonewall” also concerns a young visitor to Asia whose family is troubled—in this case by Jeff’s father, who is mentally ill and alcoholic. Jeff makes friends with an elderly Korean teacher, Mr. Lee, who has his own problem with alcohol. Mr. Lee serves both as Jeff’s unlikely confidant and teacher about what it is like to live with the threat of a hostile neighboring North Korea. Mr. Lee offers him paradoxical advice, saying that hate is too easy, too much of a reduction; yet, despite this belief, the country should be punished partly because retribution and penance are strong cultural beliefs in Korea. This and his other Korean experiences somehow offer Jeff the courage when he returns to the States to defy his father and deal honestly with him for the first time.
“Hobart Dreams” by Dave Zoby is a comic memoir about Zoby’s experience in high school working as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant where his brother also worked, before leaving for college. In his brother’s absence, Zoby begins acting out, lying and plotting with a friend to host an illicit party at a local hotel. The party plans go badly awry as the young Zoby learns a valuable lesson about how far he can go in breaking the rules.
Miriam Bird Greenberg’s poems take us to places distant and close—an old earthquake site in Northern California, wartime Mexico during Octavio Paz’s childhood, the constellation Ophiuchus, and a rain-hemmed room. Those places, dreamed and imagined, blur boundaries and blend into one another. Greenberg’s poems not only resist the constraints of spatial locations but also defy any static notion of identities. At one moment, our speaker is a mechanic working at a telephone box, and at another she is putting on “a black lace bra” or breaking an animal’s neck. She at once dreads finding herself poverty-stricken—“trash picking, tearing / corners from a twenty”—and is afraid to lose the freedom of being lost like a runaway. Jennifer Barber’s poems gaze on small details and fleeting moments: bird nests in early spring, the first autumn rain, fallen pears in the grass, a deserted railway station. Sparse but astute, they resist any sense of finality or closure. Through the use of silence and white space, they cause the seemingly insignificant and transient to both enlarge and linger.
Doug Ramspeck’s poems are haunted by memories of his childhood—his father falling from the barn roof, his mother nudging him to pray, his father dozing off beside him, old men with “the smoke of the clouds to keep them company” and bats set loose from a cut hickory tree. Here, past and present experiences and perceptions bleed into one another. They grow intense with each remembrance and re-envisioning, defying erasure.
David Naimon interviews novelist David Mitchell about his award-winning novels. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell’s newest novel The Bone Clocks has been selected for the 2014 long list. It is a book about mortality and in some ways a kind of defiance of death. Mitchell says in the interview, “What’s going on is I’m middle-aged. My relationship to mortality needs a reboot. This young guy that I’m used to seeing in the mirror is no longer there. You need to handle that, to think about it. It’s serious stuff. Mortality is no longer an abstract thing over the horizon anymore. It’s in your kneecaps, it’s in your back, it’s in your lungs.”
This issue’s Curio Cabinet. “Living Energy: The Paintings of Michael West” describes the career of one of the women artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement during and following World War II. Abstract Expressionism is described by some art historians as the first art movement in which America plainly took the lead in Western art. Michael West and her fellow painters Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky shared the belief that style, inner compulsion and spontaneous gesture defined subject and were the wellsprings of creativity.
In her feature on Jacob Riis, Kristine Somerville focuses on his photographs of New York’s slum children. Riis was a pioneering photographer and Progressive social reformer whose own rags-to-riches story trumps anything written by Horatio Alger. Born in rural Denmark in 1849, he came to America during a wave of European immigration to make a better life for himself. He experienced firsthand the horrors of poverty, only to defy the odds and become a successful reporter and author of the bestselling photojournalistic investigation of New York’s poverty, How the Other Half Lives. With the book’s appearance and his tireless speaking tours, the public could no longer ignore the plight of those at the lowest rung of society and the staggering inequality that existed during the Gilded and Progressive eras.
Poetry Feature: Doug Ramspeck
Featuring the poems:
- Black Flowers
- Snow Prayers
- Winter Country
- The Art of Morning
- Confession of Bats
- Old Men
The Prodigal Daughter
At the time of her mother’s death, Eileen had called her once a week from London. She even wrote the odd letter now and then, getting into a correspondence with the old one. They made promises to meet, and her mother reminded Eileen that the old woman was not long for the mortal coil. It was now or never.
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What to Expect
Three am, four am, the inky blot of time between night and dawn, she sat up in bed covered in sweat. There were no dreams to blame. She’d stopped dreaming. It was like her body knew she no longer needed to dream, that she had stepped into a reality more surreal. The baby could be retarded. The baby could be autistic. The baby could have a congenital defect, faulty DNA. The baby could have a less determinate problem— could be mean or exhausting or ugly. Really, this baby could be anybody.
This story is not currently available online.
They reached the edge of town with the sun below the rooftops. Before them stretched a forsaken street of abandoned shops and businesses, weeds tufting the sidewalk. At a major intersection up ahead, a lone traffic light flashed its useless warning.
“It’s like a zombie flick,” Wyatt said.
“Except we are the zombies and the humans are gone.”
Yoshimi crossed to a 7-Eleven and peered through the grimy window. “It looks like the day I left. Everything is still on the shelves. We could live here for months.”
This story is not currently available online.